Engaging the senses with a sensory diet

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A weighted sensory snake

With a bank account, you make deposits and withdrawals throughout the day. In a metaphoric sense, we have an emotional bank account too. We receive deposits through kind words or seeing someone unload the dishwasher without being asked. We also have emotional withdrawals throughout the day with working hard, facing stress or deadlines.

For someone with sensory processing problems, those account deposits are crucial and often times lacking.

Every day there are annoyances, challenges and various stimuli that aren’t getting processed and regulated properly. All of these things drain on the sensory and emotional account, making far too many withdrawals.

How do you counteract this? Well there is something called a sensory diet, which has nothing to do with an eating plan. It calls for a deliberate engagement of a specific sensory area. Doing this helps the body to organize sensory inputs and offers a method for calming and improved focus. (Learn more about the sensory diet.)

So at school, if I was frustrated with an assignment, instead of telling me to go to the bathroom to calm down and wipe my tears, a better solution would have been to give me a weighted blanket or vest. Or, in the earlier years, being able to tightly hug a fluffy pillow. The specific engagement with my tactile receptors would have interpreted this as calming. And the extra weight would have offered a sensation of deep pressure, which also would have been calming. Or receiving a bear hug, if I was open to that in the moment. Through these efforts, I would be in a better position to receive instruction.

This concept of deep pressure isn’t just for the sensory sensitive. Think about it. When it’s raining outside, a natural instinct is to stay in bed, curled up beneath the covers. The covers are soothing because of the extra weight and pressure on your body.

In second grade, I remember being among a group of students volunteering to help my teacher bring in her things from the car. She’d have several bags and a big jug of tea. This was actually a helpful move for me in several ways. First, it offered “heavy work,” an opportunity to engage my muscles. This would help with focus and put “money in my bank” for coping with future annoyances. Second, it meant I could enter the classroom without the extra jostling of kids in the line or the loud noise. And it gave me something to do instead of wandering around the playground. Giving me something to do also made me feel important. I was helping!

Some kids respond to spinning in circles, needing that stimulation through movement, to help with focus. I have found that movement helps me think. While riding the bus to school in high school or going on long car rides, the movement unleashed an ability to focus more clearly and allow creative juices to start flowing. I wrote many poems while riding on the bus on the way to school or heading to a basketball game. Something about the extra motion enabled my thoughts to flow more efficiently. And it’s also why going on morning walks has helped me brainstorm for these blog posts. I’ll walk and type on my phone’s notepad; the combination helps me focus.

Technically speaking, though, the sensory diet is meant to be a regular, routine effort of engaging activities. What I’ve described is more of a situation-based approach. But both have their place.

Alright, so online resources are awesome. By no means is the following an exhaustive list, but these are things that I came across that might help with engaging in sensory activities. Plus, it looks like these blogs have fantastic information in general.

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