"Sensory Diet" activities for autism awareness

"Sensory Diet" activities for autism awareness

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day.  In 2016 Barack Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation in support of the day, where he stated -

I encourage all Americans to learn more about autism and what they can do to support individuals on the autism spectrum and their families, and to help shape a world in which all people, including those with autism, are accepted for who they are.
— Barack Obama

Autism Spectrum Disorder & Early Intervention

While Autism can be “characterised and diagnosed by differences in two main areas; social communication and patterns of behaviour”(American Psychiatric Association, 2013) the causes aren’t known.  What is known however is that early intervention, support and understanding makes a difference for children (and families) with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Early intervention programs are available for children on the autism spectrum (see contacts below). 

What is a Sensory Diet?

The term "sensory diet" was coined by Occupational Therapist Patricia Willbarger.  It consists of sensory activities that can help children with sensory sensitivities to organise their body and senses to calm/energise them.  Like any diet – a "sensory diet" designed in conjunction with an occupational therapist is particular to an individual.  A generalised “complete body change in 14 days” diet approach generally won’t have as effective and long lasting results.  However,  a range of safe, appropriate sensory activities can easily be incorporated into an ece program and benefit all children participating. It is important that individual children's wishes are respected when participating in activities, as too much/too little sensory stimulation can be overwhelming for children with ASD. Here are just some sensory activity examples -

Touch/Deep Pressure

  • Water play
  • Log rolling (child lies stiff arms beside body & rolls along a mat)
  • Use fingerpaint
  • Play with foamy soap/shaving cream
  • Dress up – wear different fabrics
  • Help with gardening
    Note: Never force a child to touch something they find “gross.” Let them use a paintbrush, stick, gloves, or even a toy for cautious exploration.

Movement/Proprioception

  • Crawling on hands and knees
  • Jumping jacks
  • Ride a tricycle/bicycle
  • Play catch
  • Wall or floor push-ups
  • Balloon Tennis
    Note: Generally, rhythmic movement is calming while erratic movement is arousing. Never force movement.

Listening/Auditory

  • Whispering
  • Listen to sounds of nature outdoors
  • Blow whistles
  • Listen to favourite music
  • "Safe space" with quiet and low light
  • Identify and label sounds

Looking/Vision

  • Look at picture books
  • Games and activities that develop visual skills - mazez, dot to dot, drawing
  • Look at mobiles, lava lamps, bubble lamps
  • Wide brim hat outdoors
  • Look at nature - fish tanks, pets, plants, bugs
  • Restrict toys to 5-10 at a time to avoid visual overload

Smell/Taste/Oral Comforts

  • Smell flowers
  • Blindfold smelling game
  • Eat frozen/cool/warm foods
  • Blow bubbles
  • Explore textures: crunchy, creamy, chewy, lumpy

© 2008 Lindsey Biel, OTR/L
These "sensory diet" activities are excerpted from Updated and Expanded Edition of Raising a Sensory Smart Child By Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske and the complete list can be found on their website as a pdf download

For information on diagnosis/early intervention and autism spectrum awareness/guides for speaking to parents visit the following websites

Autism NZ + national organisations – New Zealand

Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT) +State organisations + Autism Awareness - Australia

Autism Speaks + Autism Society + State Organisations - USA

Jennifer Garner’s Plea – Close the Gap in Early Childhood

Jennifer Garner’s Plea – Close the Gap in Early Childhood

One hundred positive adjectives for learning.

One hundred positive adjectives for learning.