By Nancy Peske
Some kids and teens don’t like tags in their clothing. Some can’t get enough of flipping and turning when participating in gymnastics. And some don’t just prefer that tag cut out or lots of movement: They actually have sensory processing issues. Their brains process sensory information differently, making it hard to function well at home, at school, and away.
Kids with sensory issues can easily become overwhelmed by everyday sensations. They might shut down and refuse to participate in activities. They might become so hyperactive they ignore safety and social rules. If they have certain activities, accommodations, and breaks from sensations throughout the day, or what’s known as a “sensory diet,” everyday life can be much easier.
A sensory diet keeps a child’s body and nervous system from experiencing extremes.
Just as a proper diet of meals and snacks throughout the day keeps kids from feeling too full or too hungry, a sensory diet can keep them from intense sensory seeking or avoiding.
At intervals throughout the day, the child’s system can be calmed by:
- doing push-ups against a wall or while seated in a classroom
- jumping on a mini trampoline
- chewing sour or spicy gum or a chewable silicone item
- using a chair that provides a rocking movement
A sensory diet should also include sensory breaks for regrouping, perhaps in a quiet, dimly lit room.
It also needs to involve accommodations such as opportunities throughout the day to:
- listen to calming music
- use essential oils such as lavender oil
- receive deep pressure against the skin (such as firm back rubs)
If your child has sensory issues, work with them to figure out when during the day they start to feel unfocused, distracted, or overstimulated. Introduce possible sensory diet activities and accommodations. Would noise-reducing headphones and chewing gum at school help? If your child or teen says no, listen to their reasons why. They might know they need to sit in the front row of the classroom, where they’ll be less distracted. They might say they need some sensory breaks to experience silence (or even wearing earplugs for short intervals).
Movement outdoors in nature can be especially helpful for regrouping, so be sure not to allow the school to take away your child’s recess time as a punishment. More recess time as part of a sensory diet will likely help their behavior!
Setting up a customized sensory diet can be even easier if you work with an occupational therapist (OT). A private OT or one who works for the school can also help school staff understand why your child needs to chew something, move regularly, or get sensory breaks from very stimulating environments. Your child might even qualify for assistance or even occupational therapy at school through an IEP (individualized education plan) or 504 plan (for accommodations).
Your child may insist on wearing certain types of clothing: super soft cotton clothes, shirts without tags or appliques, tight bicycle shorts or underwear, or something else. You might not think the different types of tactile (touch) input these different articles of clothing provide aren’t such a big deal but they may be hugely important for your child.
Ask, “What can I do to help you feel more comfortable?”
Always listen to your child’s answers even if they seem odd to you. A break to pitch rocks into the creek behind Grandma’s house, away from cooking smells and the bustle of a family holiday gathering, might be all your child needs to avoid becoming anxious and uncomfortable. You might be surprised by your child’s experience of everyday sensations and by what creative ideas they have for making themselves better able to go about their everyday activities.