Written by: Chris Vamvakos

Sensory Diets

What is a sensory diet? 

Emotion regulation vs. Sensory Regulation 

For most parents, it is well understood that emotion regulation is the ability to have control over one’s emotions. But what about sensory regulation? Sensory regulation is a critical piece to supporting those with emotion regulation difficulties but appears to be much less understood or even neglected entirely. Neurodiverse children (such as those with ADHD and Autism) who may not understand their sensory regulation needs will often have emotion regulation difficulties. When it comes to focus, learning, or behavioural issues, having someone to help them understand their sensory needs can have a large impact on their overall daily functioning.  

We can better understand this concept when we apply it to ourselves. Do you play with your hair? Bite your nails? Turn the light up to focus, or down to relax? Need to move about after sitting for too long? Change into more comfortable clothing when you get home? These are all examples of regulating ourselves via our sensory experiences which directly affects our ability to maintain appropriate control of our emotions. We constantly do this, whether we are aware or not, to function at optimal performance.  

People who are autistic, have ADHD, sensory processing differences, or other related neurodivergent traits are often unaware of what they need to help them function at their best. As parents, teachers and professionals, we recognise that individuals are not choosing to have challenging behaviours and if we can better understand what their needs are, we might empower them to navigate their emotions more effectively and thrive throughout the day.   

The sensory world 

There is a lot to consider when we think of how our bodies respond to the sensory stimuli around us. If you are not sure about your or your child’s sensory needs, it might be worthwhile completing a sensory profile with an Occupational Therapist.  

Let’s break down the sensory systems first. Though most people know our main five senses to be sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, current research suggests there might be eight in total. It is these eight that most therapists will use to understand the sensory profile of a young person: 

Visual – Processes information from the eyes, allowing us to see and interpret visual stimuli such as light, colour, shape, and motion. 

Auditory – Processes sound information, enabling us to hear and interpret noises, speech, and music. 

Tactile – Processes information related to touch, including pressure, temperature, pain, and texture. 

Olfactory – Processes scent information, allowing us to detect and identify different odours. 

Gustatory – Processes taste information, enabling us to distinguish between different flavours such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. 

Vestibular – Processes information related to balance, spatial orientation, and movement. It helps us maintain posture and equilibrium. 

Proprioception – Processes information about body position and movement, allowing us to sense the position and movement of our limbs and body without looking. 

Interoception – Processes internal bodily sensations, such as hunger, thirst, heart rate, and respiration. It helps us understand and respond to the physiological condition of our body. 

Observing how an individual engages and interacts with their world through a sensory lens, we can also get information on their tolerance level for certain sensory input, and how they do or do not use that sensory input to regulate themselves. Do they have a high or low tolerance to that stimulus? Do they seek it, avoid it, or maybe not notice it at all? For example, a individual with a high tolerance for auditory stimulation (i.e., noise) might enjoy banging on a drum set more than another individual with a lower threshold. Whereas a someone with low tolerance will find it immediately distracting or downright uncomfortable. Someone with a low threshold for tactile stimuli (i.e., playing with clay) might dislike the sensation of having their hands covered and dirty compared to someone with high tolerance.  

In addition, we ask: does this sensory input regulate our bodies in some way? Does reducing noise let us concentrate longer? Does keeping my fingers busy help me to listen more effectively? Does some movement or a walk outside let me sit longer in class overall? Applying the right level of sensory feedback is important for an individual to function at their optimal level.  

This video explains this concept visually using the ‘cup analogy’: Sensory Overview – Cup Analogy (youtube.com) 

A healthy sensory diet 

When we have all this information, we are much better placed to help an individual regulate both from a sensory perspective and an emotional perspective. We can influence elements of their day by addressing their sensory needs to give them the best chance of coping with emotionally difficult situations. How do we do it? We develop a sensory diet.  

A sensory diet is a personalised set of activities and strategies designed to help individuals with sensory processing issues achieve an optimal level of arousal and functioning throughout the day. These activities are tailored to meet the specific sensory needs of the individual, helping them to stay focused, calm, and appropriately responsive to sensory input. The sensory needs of every individual is going to be different and the resources and usage should differ between them. This might be why, in some cases, even with a communal sensory box with several items to choose from, an individual might still struggle to focus in the classroom. The diet consists of a range of activities targeted at either providing input or relief from a certain sensory stimulus. They can be incorporated into an individualised daily routine or they might be freely available for the individual to use as they need it (depending on the level of awareness of their needs).  

We want to be mindful of what sensory items alert the sensory system and which help to calm it. If an individual is touching all areas of their desk, pens, papers, picking at their clothes, giving them a fidget toy to occupy their fingers could meet that sensory need and allow them to attend to something else (such as listening to the teacher). This is calming for that individual. For another person with exactly the same presentation, a fidget toy might be overstimulating and distracting, thereby, alerting the system, so maybe a short break to do some crafts or finger knitting before returning to the lesson might be more effective. For both individual, they have a sensory need that is yearning to be met. These strategies might form part of the individual’s routine or it might be an option available to them throughout the day. 

Becoming more aware of our sensory needs can be a gamechanger. The ability to interpret the sensory world is an essential skill, but for those with sensory processing differences, there can be challenges in perceiving, integrating, and responding to sensory information. Supporting individuals by understanding their sensory needs sets them up for success, not only in their daily functioning, but in other areas of their development. When sensory diets are implemented, individuals might be more likely to try out emotional regulation strategies, feel confident to try new things, and interact with the world in ways they could not before.  

About the author
Chris Vamvakos
Chris is an educational and developmental psychology registrar. Chris is passionate about working with people of all ages across the lifespan and helping them to achieve their potential. At the core of Chris’s practice is a strong commitment to embracing diversity. Believing in the importance of providing a judgment-free zone, Chris ensures that everyone, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, or race, has access to a nurturing environment where their thoughts and emotions can be safely explored.
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