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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Sensory Diet

Here’s another new trendy term you may have heard. The only problem is, when you google it, most of the results talk about this being an issue for kids, or even specifically for children with Sensory Processing Disorder. As if no one else needs to think about it. That’s like saying healthy food is only important for children and those with diabetes.

Our bodies have needs, which we mostly ignore until that neglect starts to have a negative effect. We need sleep, we need water, we need food. Check. We realize that sitting too long in one position can make our muscles sore, so we stretch, but don’t think of movement as a “need.” And but it is, and our senses need a chance to stretch, too. We noticed this when we spent too long looking at computer screens, and many got headaches or eye strain – that’s when we heard about the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes, look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

But of course you have more senses than just sight – there’s the traditional five (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), but also proprioception and vestibular. And just as different people have different nutritional needs, each person needs more or less variety in every one of their senses. Take a few minutes to think about what you’ve noticed in yourself, how different activities and experiences affect how you feel, and how much of that effect is related to the sensory aspect of them:

SIGHT: Look around, and think of what parts of what you see are soothing, or exciting. The colors, the brightness, the shapes. Are there any that bother you? For some people, certain colors are actually painful to look at.

SOUND: What sounds calm you, what sounds help you feel more alert? High or low pitch, loud or soft, slow or fast, sharp or soft, simple or layered? When you’re in the mood for a certain kind of music, what about it is appealing to what need in that moment? Does silence calm and focus you, or increase distraction as your auditory center gets twitchy?

SMELL: What smells are relaxing (typically lavender, rose, rosemary, chamomile, ylang ylang, vanilla & frankincense)? What scents help you feel more alert (for most people: citrus, mint, pine, eucalyptus, basil, cinnamon, coffee)?

TASTE: Sweet, savory, salty, minty, spicy, acidic… each can have a different effect. Mint and ginger are especially good for anxiety and stomach aches.

TOUCH: Smooth, rough, hot, cold, slippery, sticky. There’s a reason why putty really helps some people focus, but can be bothersome to others.

PROPRIOCEPTION: This is the sense of where you are in space, that comes from the tension in your muscles, and pressure. Firm pressure tends to be settling, while light pressure activating (why for some the tags in clothing are intolerable). Pushing against something, being compressed (hugs, snug clothing, massaging hands, shoulders, etc.), or carrying a heavy weight can all satisfy this need, along with movement, especially targeted movement (jumping to a specific spot).

VESTIBULAR: Finally, the tiny tubes in your ears that tell you which way is up need their exercise, too. Rocking is not just for babies – 15 min of swinging can help a kid stay calmer for hours after. Rhythmic linear movement (swinging, swaying) is calming, while circular movement increases energy, and bouncing can improve focus.

Once you recognize how all these affect your health, your ability to function, and your general well-being, you can see how important it is to make them part of your daily routine. Skipping a morning walk can impair your function as much as skipping breakfast. And incorporating them into the school day can help the students feel more balanced, focused, and ready to learn. There are a lot of sites (one great one on the next page) with information and materials – just remember, whatever a site might say, these are good for everyone.

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