“Sensory diet” is a treatment strategy used to manage sensory processing dysfunction (also known as sensory motor integration   dysfunction). In essence, it is a list of sensory activities that helps to keep a child feeling ‘calm’ and sensorial organized that then allows them to attend, learn and behave to the best of  their ability.

More specifically, it is an individually tailored home and/or school, preschool or child care program of sensory and physical (‘motor’ or muscle) based activities. It is used to help manage a child’s sensory-motor needs and reduce the impact any such dysfunction may be having upon the child’s attention and activity levels, behavior and/or learning and skill development. A sensory diet is used both as a treatment strategy when attention or behavior is problematic as well as a preventative tool in advance of known behavior challenges (exposure to known triggers, certain times of day or specific environments).

 Just like we try to eat a balanced food diet (of more fruit and vegetables and less chocolate) to keep fit and healthy, we also need a balanced amount of sensory information in our bodies each day to allow them to work well. A “sensory diet” provides regular opportunities for a child to ‘keep in check’ the imbalance in the sensory stimulation they are lacking, seeking or avoiding, to ensure that the amount received meet the body’s required levels to function well..

If child has sensory processing dysfunction which requires management by a sensory diet this might be demonstrated by the child:

  • Being very physically active (to the point they can not settle to a task)  or
  • Looking tired and lethargic, or vague and day-dreamy
  • Becoming ‘wound up’ with physical activity
  • Being unable to settle after being in busy environments
  • Having difficulty controlling impulses
  • Has trouble modulating the tone of voice used
  • Being restless at group time or in crowds
  • Being too rough in play
  • Failing to understand personal space (invading others inappropriately)
  • Having difficulty sleeping

When a child has sensory processing dysfunction that requires management with a sensory diet, they might also have difficulties with:

  • Following instructions.
  • Understanding instructions.
  • Working memory (retaining learnt skills).
  • Getting to sleep and staying asleep.
  • Taking risks in play (either excessive risk taking or being overly cautious).
  • Accessing the preschool or school curriculum (due to inattention, poor behaviour).
  • Academic performance (be this fine motor, literacy and numeracy, peer interaction, organization).

A sensory diet consists of a range of activities that target the different sensory systems and must be specifically tailored to the child’s needs. In order to work out what kind of sensory input is required, the Occupational Therapist and parent collaborate to determine the types of sensory input the child requires based upon formal assessment as well as observations of the child’s responses to a variety of environments and trialed sensory activities.
The sensory diet activities that may best suit one child, may not necessarily work for another which is why a sensory diet must be developed in conjunction with parents and therapists. Different times of the day and different environments may be more conducive to one type of sensory diet activity more than another and it is often a matter of trial and error to determine what will work best for the child (and their careers).


  • Physical activities are the easiest to start with as most children tolerate movement better than any other type of sensory input. Physical activities which use the large core muscles result in a greater amount of sensory stimulation and might include:
    • Wheelbarrow walking
    • Animal walks (Eg. bear walks, crab walking, frog jumps)
    • Trampoline
    • Cycling or using a scooter
    • Swings (forward and back, side to side, rotary)
    • Rough and tumble play
    • Deep pressure squishing or sandwiching with pillows or balls
    • Wearing a heavy backpack for movement (e.g. to carry heavy drink bottle when scooting)
    • Playing with weighted items (wheat bag on lap while sitting or heavy blanket for sleep)
  • Tactile: Play with play-doh, gloop/slime, kinetic sand, shaving cream, bird seed, rice or any other tactile products.  You can just play, draw or hide objects to retrieve in these tactile products.  
  • Visual: Using torches to look at books, using dot-to-dots or mazes to narrow visual attention.
  • Oral: Chew toys or specifically chewy foods.
  • Auditory: ‘white noise’ or favored music on an iPod, nose reduction headphones.
  • Visual cues can often be very useful to help your child to follow longer instructions as it provides them with something to refer back to if they are having difficulty remembering what they need to do. It also highlights the order in which they need to complete the instruction.