I first heard the term “sensory diet” three years ago, just before my son was diagnosed with autism and his associated sensory processing disorder.
When I read the worksheet the occupational therapist had given me, I felt sick. My first thought was, “No way can we pull this off.” My second thought was, “Are you serious…we have to do these things six times a day???” And my third thought was, “I am so tired.”
Fast forward to last week, and this was the picture on my Instagram Account –
Sensory integration anyone?
The truth is, I was overwhelmed in the beginning, for very good reason. I knew almost nothing about sensory processing disorder and even less about sensory exercises and “synching” the sensory system (and don’t get me started on the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol). But it seemed I was expected to head home after that first OT session, and immediately implement a daily sensory diet.
I felt overwhelmed, uninformed, and out of my league. Not because I didn’t understand the worksheet and brushing requirements, but because my son was in the throws of daily (read: three – four times daily) meltdowns. And the last thing he wanted me to do was brush his arms. In fact, after two days, he lost his mind when he even saw the brushes in the medicine cabinet.
“But this is what the OT said would help with the meltdowns. This is the only advice anyone has actually given us. He has to do it,” is what ran through my mind every day for the first week. Then, my son melted down in the OT gym when the OT tried to brush him.
We got kicked out.
(This actually happened. We went to OT to help him with meltdowns and when he melted down, we were kicked out because he might hurt others when he melted down. I felt so ashamed and alone. I left that day, my son still pulling my hair and biting me in the elevator, convinced that my kid was so bad, so much worse than all the other kids, that he couldn’t even go to the place that would be able to help him.)
So after a few more months, when we finally had the autism diagnosis and a little more knowledge under our belt, we tried again with a new OT gym and private sessions. He still resisted. I still got the worksheet to take home (although I told her she should just hang on to the brushes), but this time was so different. This time, our OT said, “Just try and do it as often as you can, in ways that he doesn’t even realize are therapeutic. Once he realizes it makes him feel better, he will want to do it more.”
She was absolutely right.
Within days, my son was asking to bounce on the trampoline with my husband. When they bounced, every once in a while, my son would bounce into my husband’s chest. “It’s proprioceptive,” I would say to my stricken husband.
When I was bringing in bags from the grocery store, I would pretend to not be able to get the last two, and ask my son if he thought he could lift them. Wanting to prove his strength, he would and the heavy lifting seemed to help him feel more “synched”.
When we realized in the OT gym how much he loved the feeling of lycra on his body, we made lycra sheets for his bed, something that he still uses to help calm down.
It didn’t happen because someone handed me a worksheet, and it didn’t happen quickly. It took months to figure out what worked and didn’t work for my boy. Every week, I would share my observations with his OT, and every week she would suggest more things to try. More importantly, she was always quick to remind me not to force it. “He knows what his body needs. If he resists, we try something else. Forcing it will create the type of rigid thinking and anxiety that causes meltdowns. Just let him do what feels natural. We want him to learn to connect with his senses, and understand what works for him. Long term, that will matter more than any one exercise today.” (I know – I was totally spoiled by this sweet woman. She helped my son learn to live well. I will forever be grateful.)
If you are a momma trying to figure this sensory thing out, please know you are not alone. Please know it is not easy, simple, or quick. It takes time. It takes focus that you may not even feel capable of at this point. That is OK. Just try the next thing – whatever it is. And then the next. And the next.
I am not a doctor or an expert. I am a momma, just like you. I would like to provide some suggestions that have worked for us, but only with this caveat – what works for my son, may not be what works for your child. It doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong, or your little one is somehow beyond help. For example, although my son to this day can’t stand the idea of Wilbarger brushing, many other family’s have seen amazing success with it.
You know your child. You see first hand what works and doesn’t work. Take a deep breath, have another cup of coffee, and just keep trying.
Sensory Activities Around The House
Here are some options you might consider:
1. Lycra – it saved our life. We have his sheets and we also have large swaths of it in the house. At one point, my son asked us to wrap him up in it tightly and then wanted to go jump on the trampoline. He was calm and focused for the rest of the day. In fact, lycra has become so much a part of our life, we included this picture in our family Christmas card one year (because sometimes, you just have smile and accept the crazy!).
2. Trampoline – Almost every family I know with sensory needs has one or regularly visits someone who does. Something about the bouncing makes a tremendous difference for our children. But be warned, if you buy one, they will wear out with daily (sometimes three-four times daily) use. We are on our third in as many years, and I know another sensory family that is on trampoline #5.
3. Cleaning Routines – Because my son has tactile defensiveness (and I suspect my youngest son is a seeker), I have learned to incorporate water and child safe cleaning products into our daily routine. For example, in the first picture above, my son is “helping me” mop the floor. You know, with his entire body and a mild soap, but mopping just the same. Shave cream makes a great shower cleaner, but can also be used for drawing and writing, squishing between fingers and toes, and rubbing on arms and legs. The good news? You can always rinse it all off your child when he is finished up, he will be happily occupied for an hour, and your house will be cleaner as a result.
4. Cooking – Baking cookies and hand mixing the dough, making meatballs or hamburger patties, getting the heavy mixer out from the cupboard and lifting it to the counter – all have helped us incorporate a sensory diet into our day.
5. Gardening – Getting hands dirty and learning to not freak out, lifting bags of soil, dragging a hose, and smelling different plants/fertilizers have been some of the activities that have helped my son in our own backyard.
6. Wrestling – My son loves to “wrestle”. However, most of the time, it involves more of my husband standing firm, and my son throwing himself against him. (My husband and I joke that “It’s proprioceptive,” has become an explanation for everything around here.)
7. Massage – We have incorporated massage into our days as much as possible. Foot massages help with his tactile defensiveness (so much so that every once in a while, my son asks to wear real shoes instead of crocs!) and allow us to experiment with different essential oil blends. Also a deep pressure back massage helps my son when his body feels out of control or sluggish.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you would like more suggestions, I highly recommend The Out-Of-Sync Child Has Fun by: Carol Stock Kranowitz. In it, you will find so many suggestions (but please don’t panic – try one at a time as you see fit for your child. When I first read it, I was terrified. I thought I had to do all the sensory things, but I was wrong. One exercise here, one exercise there – it goes a long way.)
No matter what you decide, no matter what your approach, you can do this momma. You know you child. You have the greatest motivation of all to figure this out –
Your mother’s heart and so much love.