What are Sensory Diets and can it work for my Child at Home?

In the world of autism spectrum disorders as well as sensory processing disorders, many parents have heard the term “sensory diet” thrown around as a way to describe a type of pediatric intervention. In order to minimize assumptions and misconceptions about sensory diets, let’s clearly define what they really are and how such diets are carefully implemented.

Cindy Hatch-Rasmussen, OTR/L sums up the definition of “sensory diet” quite nicely:

“A sensory diet is a group of activities that are specifically scheduled for a child’s day to assist with attention, arousal and adaptive responses. The activities are chosen for that child’s needs based on sensory integration theory. The use of specific types of input; proprioceptive, tactile, visual auditory, vestibular, gustatory, and oral motor are introduced during various times of the day and assist the brain in regulating attention and an appropriate level of arousal.” https://www.ssdmo.org/cool_tools/inclusive/Resources/trying_to_make_sense_resources.pdf.

In simplified terms, sensory diets address very detailed sensory-based needs of a child as determined by a knowledgeable clinician, which in many cases includes an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory integration treatment. Those needs are met in order to assist the child in functioning day to day and to optimally participate in tasks that matter to them (i.e., play, social participation, academics, etc.). With that in mind, let’s answer some of the following questions that parents/guardians might have regarding sensory diet use at home:

  1. I can find sensory diet sheets online for free. As a parent, can I just put together a diet plan for my child without a professional?

    As a parent, you could attempt creating a sensory diet plan for your child given that resources are available and you probably know your child the best out of anyone else in their life. However, you run the risk of creating an ineffective program that could be a waste of time for you and your child. Furthermore, you run the risk of creating a program that could make things worse for you and your child. Sensory treatments are delicate and complex processes that require a ton of prerequisite knowledge in order to be effectively applied.

  2. How do I know if my child needs a sensory diet?

    Symptoms of sensory processing disorder can be tricky to identify, especially as a parent who has never experienced it before. According to WebMD (2018), sensory processing disorder comes with many symptoms that often don’t look connected to sensory dysfunction including clumsy movements, bumping into things, difficulty engaging in play, sensitivity to touch, light, sound, etc. https://www.webmd.com/children/sensory-processing-disorder#1. All you can really do is look for any unusual behavior or reactions from your child that is impeding their ability to participate in tasks typical for their age. Consult with your physician as well as an occupational therapist who can provide your child with a sensory integration evaluation.

  3. We have a home-health OT already who has provided my child with sensory diet plans, but she is not certified in sensory integration. Is this a problem?

    Yes and no. If you want a sensory diet plan or any other sensory integration intervention to work for your child, your best bet would be to go to an occupational therapist who is certified in carrying out those treatments. Currently, OTs do not have to be certified in sensory integration in order to carry out in treatment settings. Sometimes, parents get lucky and have an OT who is very knowledgeable of sensory integration treatments even though he/she lacks the certification.

  4. Does insurance cover sensory diets?

    According to Kristi Jordan, OTR/L (2012), sensory diets are not considered “evidence-based treatments” which means that the scholarly research is lacking regarding their actual effectiveness. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/styles/iidc/defiles/IRCA/SensoryDietsFAQAreSensoryDietsEvidenceBased.pdf. Therapy treatments that not listed as “evidence-based” are not typically covered by any insurance, federal or private. This means that parents who go through official sensory integration clinics or sensory-certified OTs, obtain an evaluation, and have their child participate in sensory integration treatment are looking at out-of-pocket expenses. In some cases, there are OTs who introduce sensory diets via home health routes that are not directly through sensory integration clinics. Once again, you run the risk of not getting an effective sensory diet plan for your child but it is an option that will often get insurance coverage. If your child is receiving in-home OT, consult with them and your home health agency regarding sensory diet coverage using your health insurance policy.