Do you ever catch yourself fidgeting during a meeting or going for a walk in the middle of the day to stay alert? When you do these things, you’re providing the necessary sensory input that your body needs, to remain focused and attentive throughout the day.

For children with autism who have sensory processing issues, these needs are even more intense. Without proper exposure to stimuli, children can struggle with being organized, demonstrating the right behavior, or even paying attention to their surroundings. A child with autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) displays problems in social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. Some typical signs and symptoms seen in children with autism include them avoiding eye contact, not responding to their name, not smiling back, repetitive movements or rocking their body, getting very upset or overwhelmed with certain tastes, smells or sounds.

Occupational therapists, Wilbarger and Wilbarger (1991), created the concept of a sensory diet, which is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs, and stay focused and organized throughout the day. For instance, calming and stimulating activities involving minimal time and materials, like crumpling newspaper, cutting plastic straws, popping bubble wrap, or “taste tests” in the kitchen, act as a great sensory diet for toddlers.

How does a sensory diet work?

A sensory diet is a carefully planned routine or series of physical activities executed by an occupational therapist, and tailored to give each child the required amount of sensory processing development. They design the routine of activities to fit the child’s schedule, taking into consideration the age, severity of the condition, and other important factors. It includes a combination of textures, smells, visual cues, and exercises that ensure the child receives a multitude of stimuli.

Activities that involve swinging, jumping, spinning, or running are great vestibular input, which is alerting to the sensory and nervous system. Completing a routine can help children with autism, pay more attention to studies, learn new skills, and socialize with other children. While the sensory system continues to develop until the age of approximately 7, children are sufficiently stimulated even with 10-minute breaks about every 2 hours, by the time they reach age 10.

Why is a Sensory Diet Important?

A sensory diet for toddlers or for a child with Autism, provides regular opportunities to receive the stimulation that they need to function. A sensory diet can be established and then modified over time to keep up with the shift in the child’s sensory processing changes or environmental demands. As they learn to self-regulate their emotions and reactions, they develop important life skills such as empathy, concentration, generosity, and patience. This enables a child to move from depending on others to becoming more independent and managing tasks or situations by themselves.

Symptoms of sensory processing issues

Like many illnesses, the symptoms of sensory processing disorder exist on a spectrum. Lack of sensory processing development may affect one sense, like hearing, touch, or taste. It may also affect multiple senses, and children with autism could be over- or under-responsive to the things they have difficulties with.

Children with sensory processing issues may:

  • Be uncoordinated
  • Bump into things
  • Be unable to tell where their limbs are in space
  • Be hard to engage in conversation or play

Many children with sensory processing disorder start out as fussy babies who become anxious as they grow older. These kids often don’t handle change well. They may frequently throw tantrums or have meltdowns. For some, the sound of a vacuum cleaner may cause them to vomit or dive under the table. They may recoil from the textures of certain foods, while others could seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain. Many children have symptoms like these from time to time, but therapists consider a diagnosis when the symptoms become severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life for them.

Who can benefit from a sensory diet?

As we have seen, a sensory diet is a tailored program to address the sensory needs of children that helps them to attend, learn, and behave better. These skills go on to form the foundation of preschool and school readiness. There are multitudes of different activities that can help achieve a better sensory input balance for children, however, different activities help with different types of processing difficulties. The children with ASD benefiting from the sensory diet, learn to:

  • Attend to daily tasks and important learning experiences
  • Regulate alertness
  • Limit sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors
  • Handle stress
  • Help a person learn to deal with challenging situations

How can you tell if a child would benefit from a sensory diet?

Although children with ASD are often overstimulated and require help to calm down or feel more alert, they are not always able to recognize when they must step back. In fact, parents are advised to consistently implement a sensory schedule to allow their children to become more self-aware and exercise increasing self-control.

A sensory diet for toddlers or for a child diagnosed with autism, includes these components that can surely be extremely beneficial:
Physical components – Most children tolerate movement better than any other type of sensory input. The activities below, use the core muscles that result in a greater amount of sensory stimulation, and include:

  • Wheelbarrow walking and somersaulting
  • Animal-themed walking (e.g. bear walks, crab walks, frog jumps)
  • Using a trampoline
  • Mock wrestling
  • Sandwiching between soft items such as pillows or balls
  • Wearing a heavy backpack for movement
  • Playing with a weighted rice bag on the lap or a heavy blanket when sleeping

Tactile components – Playing with clay, slime, sand, shaving cream, birdseed, rice, or any other tactile products allows the child to get accustomed to various types of physical textures.

Visual components – Using torches to look at books, using dot-to-dots or mazes to narrow visual attention, and using solid colors in the child’s room are all good examples of a visual sensory diet.

Oral components – Specific toys or foods can be used to supply sensory input to the mouth, jaw, and lips.

Auditory components in the form of ‘white noise’ or music through a player or noise reduction headphones.

Treatment Options for Children with Autism
Currently, the best autism treatment involves a holistic approach to ASD which includes one or more of the following:

  • Medication
  • Stem Cell Therapy
  • Occupational therapy intervention: sensory integration therapy, behavior retraining therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, social skills training
  • Speech Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Parents are encouraged to seek medical help and support for both their children and themselves. While the best Autism treatment offers a full-fledged plan that addresses the symptoms of the children as well as educates parents and caregivers about the management of symptoms and needs of their child, with a little bit of patience and care, a sensory diet can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience for the children as well as the parents involved. If you’re looking for a good Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore for treatment of Autism , you should visit Dr Na’eem Sadiq.

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.