A “Sample Sensory Diet” of Common Sense

a picture of a number of cherry picker lifts in a storage yard

Some years ago, I found this:

A Sample Sensory Diet

The following guidelines represent a kind of sensory diet for one particular child. Keep in mind that every child has a different regulatory and sensory profile, and that these activities are not appropriate or useful for every child. You should get guidance from an occupational therapist or other individual who is experienced with sensory integration.

In this particular example, the child would become disorganized on a regular basis. Although this has meant different things at different times, this child shows disorganization primarily by:

  • being extremely silly and unresponsive
  • laughing uncontrollably
  • losing control of his body–getting extremely limp and/or clumsy
  • becoming either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to pain and other physical stimuli
  • getting aggressive–pinching or spitting, usually in a taunting, almost maniacal way
  • humming and clicking while wandering around aimlessly

Engaging this child in sensory activities on a frequent, regular basis seemed to help him to remain engaged, focused, and in control more often. When this child does get disorganized, these activities help him to find himself again.

Great resources for sensory integration information:

Kranowitz, Carol Stock. The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction. 1998. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group.

Ayres, A. Jean, PhD. Sensory Integration and the Child. Western Psychological Services: Los Angeles, 1979.


At the critical times during the day, plan on activating the child with these activities.

NOTE: Spin the child at every activation phase. Spin him in the swing 10 complete revolutions each direction, with a 20-30 second pause in between. Spin firmly and quickly. Do not repeat.

Warning: For some children, spinning is not useful, and can be overstimulating and dangerous. Before engaging in any of these activities (and spinning in particular), please consult a professional who has a solid understanding of sensory integration principles.

Chase Games

  • Tag
  • Follow-the-Leader
  • Obstacle Courses
  • Red Light/Green Light
  • Running Races

Exercise Games

  • Simon Says
  • Obstacle Course
  • “If You’re Happy & You Know It”

Incorporate:

Jumping Jacks
Stretching
Situps and Pullups
Tumbling/Head Stands
Balance Beam
Standing on one leg
Wheelbarrow

Swinging/Bouncing

  • Inside swings
  • Trampoline
  • Hang-bar
  • Tire Swing
  • Outside swings
  • Outside trolley
  • Exercise ball

Squeezables

  • Nerf balls
  • Gak, floam, flubber, silly putty
  • Play catch with any ball

Incorporate those activities plus others listed in the box below into as many of your games as possible. Be sure to work in a sensory activity at least every half hour.

EVERY HALF HOUR AND ANYTIME

Other Sensory Stimulation

Everything on the other list plus:

  • Smelling Scents Game
  • Rubbing/Brushing (brush firmly and consistently–avoid stomach)
  • Rolling Up In Blanket
  • Crawling through a “caterpillar” (long tube of stretchy fabric)
  • Dragging/Sliding Around Room
  • Silly Walks (e.g., crab walk)
  • Ball and Bat
  • Imitating Songs
  • Hand Games
  • Stilts/Roller Skates
  • Jump Rope

CALMING ACTIVITIES

8:30AM Bath, Brushing, Deep Pressure

3:15PM Child’s choice (e.g., biking)

6:30PM Supper, Bath, Deep Pressure, Free Play, Stories, Bed

Now, a bunch of things come to mind, when I read this.

The first is, Why is this considered a “sensory diet” that needs to be specifically detailed to parents? I thought that’s just how kids were/are supposed to occupy themselves when they’re kids!

I mean, seriously – why is this a plan of action that is called out as something special, something artificial? Why is this something that is seen as out of the ordinary? When I was a kid, this is just what we did — we played plenty of “Chase Games” like tag, follow-the-leader, obstacle courses, red light/green light, and running races. And we played plenty of “Exercise Games” like Simon Says, creating and running through obstacle courses, and singing “If You’re Happy & You Know It”. And we didn’t need a trained expert to “instruct” us how to do it.

Am I the only one who thinks that this “professionalized” approach is a bit silly? For people who are too busy to tend to their children and are eager to plop them down in front of the television or the DVD player or the computer, it might be necessary to detail exactly why kids need to play games like this, but it’s a sad, sad commentary on modern American life, when parents and adults need to be explicitly told to create conditions in which their kids can play tag, follow-the-leader, and red light/green light.

I really think there’s something in kids that instinctively knows what they/we need, in order to mature and grow up strong. When I was a kid, we instinctively did jumping jacks, stretching, situps and pullups, tumbling/head stands, balance beam, standing on one leg, and wheelbarrow. We didn’t need “guidance from an occupational therapist or other individual who is experienced with sensory integration.” We just did it. We ran around and played. We raced each other and tested our physical limits and worked our tumbling and balancing into the course of our play. We skipped rope. We climbed, we jumped, we did all sorts of things that kids apparently don’t do anymore, unless they’re specifically ordered to do so by trained professionals or parents who have been coached by experts.

How did we get to this place? How did the domain of child’s play become the exclusive domain of qualified and certified professionals? I have no doubt that the work authors who describe in detail (for overwhelmed adult minds) the tangible benefits of kids just being kids has made a contribution to the developmental health and well-being of lots of challenged kids. But what the hell is up with parents, that they need to be explicitly told that their kids need to play at, physically and socially, in order to develop properly?

WTF?

The next thing that comes to mind is, Holy smokes, the top part really describes me to a “t” when I was a kid. I wonder if my parents knew/noticed any of this stuff.

It’s really interesting to think back about how I was when I was growing up — really hyper and hard to control, and sensitive on top of it. And when I look at the list of issues kids can have:

  • being extremely silly and unresponsive – CHECK
  • laughing uncontrollably – CHECK
  • losing control of his/her body–getting extremely limp and/or clumsy – CHECK
  • becoming either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to pain and other physical stimuli – CHECK
  • getting aggressive–pinching or spitting, usually in a taunting, almost maniacal way – CHECK
  • humming and clicking while wandering around aimlessly – ??? could very well be

All of this stuff just fits me so well, except for maybe the last one, which I don’t really recall. Not that it would have been unlike me. I was an “unusual” child, to say the least, and I probably would have considered wandering around aimlessly while humming to myself to be quite a useful and productive use of time – no joke.

When I look at the list of Sensory Processing Disorder symptoms over at http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/sensory-processing-disorder-checklist.html, I’m really struck by how well a lot of them fit me, and how well they fit my mother. Whoah. This puts Mom’s behavior in a whole new light.

The problem when I was growing up was that she was on the opposite end of the spectrum than I — she was hypo-sensitive and sensation-seeking (like the proverbial bull in a china shop, always loud and high-contact and rough and not very good at figuring out physical boundaries, etc., etc.), while I on the other hand was hyper-sensitive and I had really bad reactions to touch and being pushed and pulled and treated like some rag doll.

It’s so wild to think about this, now — it really puts things in perspective. And it makes me a lot less angry with her.

It puts my whole family into perspective, in fact. My siblings had issues. I had issues. We all had issues.

And my parents made sure we grew up in an environment where we had a “rich sensory diet”. But I’m not sure they were consciously aware of all this. I don’t think my mother really understood the nature and the impact of her behavior — she still doesn’t, from what I can tell. My dad did things, too, that tied in with “sensory richness”, like building a hanging bar for us kids to play on, and always encouraging (and pushing) me to test my physical balance limits, like with my skateboard.

Mom and Dad did appear to do things instinctively to address my issues, such as spinning me around and making sure I was always physically active and encouraging me to do lots of things that developed my balance and coordination. I was a dorky kid, with a lot of problems balancing, and I have distinct memories of my parents — especially my mother — going to great lengths to get me to participate in activities that would help me develop those. But I’m not sure they consciously chose or planned to do these things. It wasn’t like they had a formula for making sure we kids developed adequate proprioceptive and vestibular viability. It wasn’t like they consulted with experts about how best to address my sensory processing dysfunction.

At least, I don’t think so. It could be that they did talk to child psychologists and what-not, and they just hid their methods from me (which wasn’t hard to do, when I was an innocent and all-but-clueless kid). Mom did have a copy of “Dr. Spock” around, and she consulted it a lot, but so much of what my parents did, other parents in our area did for their kids, as well. It was just how things were done in the world I grew up in.

This part of my post dovetails nicely with the first part — that is, what is up with parents today, and why do they need to have these things explicitly told to them?

This really, really puzzles me. Is it because there has been so much emphasis put on “professionalization” in the past 50 years (since the USA rose to a position of global domination and the parallel veritable explosion of higher education and proliferation of specialists), that we as a society are invested in our experts? Is it because we as a society have put so many of our eggs in the basket of developing “professional expertise” that we’re now obligated to dip into the pool of professional knowledge, in order to do anything, anymore? Have we become so enamored of our “advancement” that we’ve made it all but impossible to live our lives? I smell the scent of another extended blog post, for another time… but the burning question with regard to this issue within the context of this post, is, are parents so dependent on professionals for guidance, that they are afraid to just parent? And are they so distanced from the varieties of life (sitting in their homogenized cubicles in their standards-driven office environments), that they fear even the slightest deviation from “normality”, as it’s defined by the qualified professionals of the day?

Seriously, when I look at the organizations dedicated to stamping out the “autism epidemic,” I’m struck by the corporate backgrounds of these individuals. How many of the folks sitting on the boards and doing the research have actually experienced what it’s like to be outside the acceptable range of “normal” behavior and human experience? Where’s the diversity? I wonder. The unfamiliar makes people afraid. Fear makes people do rash things. Fear makes people start and/or send money to organizations and initiatives that promise to relieve their fear.

I think one of the big reasons that my own parents could create situations where I was active and had the chance to develop coordination and balance, was that they themselves have sensory processing issues, themselves and they grew up in an environment where sensory issues and autistic spectrum behaviors and tendencies were/are actually a “regular” part of life.

Anybody who says that autism is a “new” epidemic has never spent time with my family, my extended network of relatives, and the insular communities of faith in the neck of the woods where I grew up. Most, if not all, of my relatives (including third cousins twice removed, whom I actually did grow up around), as well as most of my friends and acquaintances and people I went to church with, could easily be placed somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. Where I grew up, all you have to do is go buy a quart of milk at the local convenience store, to bump into people who — in private or unguarded moments — exhibit plenty of signs of “autistic spectrum-ish” behavior. I’m serious about this. We’re built differently, where I grew up. If you head into that neck o’ the woods (and I do mean woods), I can all but guarantee any aspiring student of the autistic spectrum will find a plethora of examples of folks all along the autistic spectrum and/or with significant sensory processing issues, who are “recovered” or at least sufficiently rehabilitated to function fully as mature adults in the big, bad world. (I won’t say where that neck of the woods is, for the sake of privacy and retaining the human dignity of possible targets of “autistic diagnosis”.)

Does this mean that the land where I grew up is chock full of behaviorally challenged individuals who need special intervention, just to get along in the world? Hell no. It just means that this so-called “autistic epidemic” might, to some extent, be a fabrication of people who have become so distanced from the flow of natural, organic life, that

A) they don’t realize that their kids actually need to run around and play, in order to grow up capable and strong and well-adjusted to the social and the physical world,

B) they can’t make a move without consulting with a trained professional expert, and

C) that the phenomenon we call “autism” may, in some cases, actually be an extreme and underdeveloped expression of what may be perfectly normal part of life — a part of life that certain folks know how to integrate into their daily lives, over the course of their constantly evolving life experience.

Now, I can sense that I’m drifting off-track with this post. And I may be courting a great deal of controversy (even wrath from the “autism epidemic” proponents). I’m finding more tangents, and my associational mind is going wild, here, and I’m sure I’m not being very diplomatic, so I’ll get myself back on track and speak to these issues more, later on. For now, let’s return to the “Sensory Diet” web page.

Under the Activities, I find even more “regular and normal” parts of my childhood experience:

Swinging/Bouncing

  • Inside swings — we had a front porch swing that we kids often sat and swung on. It wasn’t “therapy”, it was fun, and it was what we did on summer nights.
  • Trampoline — our town had one at town hall for us kids to jump on during summer vacation. I think they may have removed it, due to safety concerns, but it was one of the best parts of summer, to head over to town hall and jump on the trampoline, while the Bee Gees were playing on the radio.
  • Hang-bar — my dad installed one in our back yard, and we played on it constantly. It was just something that we had. I don’t think a doctor or expert told him to put one in. It was just seen as something that was an essential part of growing up.
  • Tire Swing — my grandparents had one of these, and when all the cousins would gather, we would all just achingly pine for our chance to get on that swing. It was one of my favorite parts of visiting my grandparents, and it was a really vital element in me keeping my cool, during visits. My grandparents’ house out in the country was full of strange and strong smells that my city nose didn’t recognize. It was easy for me to get sensorily overwhelmed, so I spent a lot of time on the tire swing.
  • Outside swings — see above. Also, I and my siblings and my best friends, loved to swing on the playground swingsets, long past the time when we were supposed to “grow out of them”. We’d head over to the park and sit in the swings and twirl and spin and do all sorts of things that “normal” people would probably consider aberrant. But we were by ourselves, and we didn’t get crap from anyone, because no one was watching us. And if they had been, we would have told them to “shove off!” anyway.
  • Outside trolley — ?? what’s this?
  • Exercise ball — This is a newfangled thing, so I can’t speak to its place in my childhood development.

Squeezables like nerf balls and silly putty were a really important part of my childhood experience. No trip to the pool was complete without a nerf ball to throw, flinging water in all directions. And nerf footballs were the only acceptable kinds of footballs to have. I remember many a game of football, with all us kids squishing and pressing and worrying the nerf football, till it started to literally fall apart in our hands. We loved our nerf footballs to death, picking absentmindedly at the surface, squeezing and pressing and throwing and catching.

We really played catch with any ball we could find. Soft squishy balls, hard softballs, tennis balls, baseballs… Run-down was a particular favorite, as we could play it in limited space and race back and forth between the bases, coordinating our motions and actions.

And we didn’t need to have trained experts show us how to do it, or tell our parents to allow us to do all this.

We just did it ourselves. Our parents expected it. And they created space and opportunity for us to do it.

This wasn’t all considered a “special sensory diet” — it was just the process of growing up. It was The Way Things Were Done.

This being said, the last thing that comes to mind is, What is up with this web page, with the “scheduling” of these kinds of sensory diet activities? How contrived — and artificial — is that?

I mean, come on, people — You have seriously got to be kidding me, that you’d actually “work in a sensory activity at least every half hour” as though it’s some part of an official agenda. What’s wrong with just spontaneously allowing these things to happen? What’s wrong with just creating an environment where kids are allowed to do all this on their own, at their own pace, in their own ways? I firmly believe, from my own experience — and my own fully functional nature — that even the most impaired kids (if given half a chance) have the innate capacity to identify the activities and the pastimes that will strengthen their weak points.

They/we just have to be allowed to do so. Without being ridiculed. Without being pitied. Without being considered “abnormal” or “defective”. Without being bullied and tortured and treated like freaks.

Maybe I’m being overly negative-Aspie and insensitive to the needs of SPD/Autistic kids, but to me that having adults organize and participate in these sorts of activities with special needs kids seems a little dumb. Adults just don’t have the imaginative range or the endurance or the flexibility (in terms of time and attention) that kids have, and they’re (in my opinion) much too “temporally bound” — as in, too aware of time schedules and deadlines — to give kids the quality of attention and activity that they need.

Why not just turn off the television and unplug the DVD player and computer, and get the kids to play? Why not just “chase ’em outside” like my mom used to do all the time, and create places where they can indulge their every SPD-rehabilitory activity to their hearts’ content? Why not just gather a bunch of kids together and teach them to tolerate differences and recognize each others’ strengths? Teach them to let the kid who can’t hit the ball to save his life keep score and organize the league. Teach them to be patient and not tease and taunt just because one of the kids picks his nose or flaps his arms when he’s agitated.

Why not just let kids be kids — and teach them to let other kids be… other? Without sanction. Without punishment. Without shame and ridicule. That seems to be a more fitting solution, than contriving all these carefully scripted and scheduled and choreographed and adult-driven activities that are poor imitations of the “real thing.” And it might just train the emerging generation of NT folks to tolerate diversity and not be mean-spirited bastards to those of us whose worst, most heinous crime is making others nervous.

How about just not treating developing kids like we’re abnormal… simply because they’re still developing?

We are all works in progress, and the sooner we stop pathologizing diversity and learn to let each other just be (and give us ugly ducklings the time and the chance to become the swans we truly are), the better off the whole planet will be.

That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

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2 thoughts on “A “Sample Sensory Diet” of Common Sense

  1. I’m not sure I get what this “disorganization” is the website is talking about. It seems to be something else than kids sitting around not moving enough, they seem to be envisaging some kind of serious disorder. It could be, of course, that I don’t really grasp the reality of sensory processing disorder, and I admit I don’t understand what “sensory integration” is. But – I’m going off on a tangent of my own here – my thought when I read this was that many of the prescribed activities, basically all the chasing games and exercise games, are things I associate with making mistakes and looking stupid in front of everyone else. I think I’d rather hum and click while wandering around aimlessly. Much more relaxing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. VisualVox

      Yeah, pretty much. The whole thing seemed kind of nonsensical – not to mention just how kids grow up. And I think other folks would rather we walk around humming and clicking, instead of making a mess of things…

      Liked by 2 people

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