We all learn through our senses. Sensory processing is how we transform sensory information from within our own bodies and the external environment into messages we can act on. It’s tempting to think of senses (touch, sight, sound, movement, body awareness, taste and smell) as separate channels of information, but they work together to give us a reliable picture of the world and our place in it.

A “sensory diet” (coined by occupational therapist Patricia Wilbarger) is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. The results of a sensory diet is both immediate and cumulative. Activities that perk up your child or calm them down are not only effective in the moment, but actually help to restructure their nervous system over time so that they are better able to tolerate sensations and situations they find challenging, regulate their alertness and increase their attention span, limit sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding behaviors, and help them handle transitions with less stress.

When planning a sensory diet, decide what will be crisis management and what will be prevention/remediation input. You then need to figure out where and when (frequency and duration) it will be done and determine who will be doing it. Remember, time and frequency must be constantly assessed for their effectiveness. In order to have the most effective sensory diet, it must be ever-changing. The amount of change is going to be dependent on the child. Some children will require constant change in their diet and some children will adapt slower. Change can come in the form of something as easy as making activity No. 1 activity No. 5 for the day. Take into account the lighting within the environment and remember to monitor the rate, pitch and volume of your voice when implementing a sensory diet.

Each child has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a child whose nervous system is on “high trigger/too wired” needs more calming input, while the child who is more “sluggish/too tired” needs more arousing input. Typical “alerting techniques” include fast swinging, bright lighting, fresh, cool air (i.e. fan), bouncing on a ball or fast jumping in general, spinning and running. Other alerting techniques include cold water to drink or on the face, loud, fast music, strong odors and flavors, chewing gum, chewy snacks or hard candy, resistive blowing or sucking, and sitting on an air cushion or ball.

Common calming techniques can include a warm bath, deep pressure massage to the body, deep breathing, wrapping tight in a blanket (akin to swaddling an infant), slow rocking, weighted lap pads and blankets, and weighted ankle and wrist bands, A child can also join in stirring, molding, rolling or pressing play dough or clay. Sometimes children do well when they have a “hideout,” like a fort or quiet corner to go to as they become overwhelmed. Slow, soft music or white noise, as well as sucking through a straw, can also be calming.

Sensory diets don’t always have to be clinical and can include many typical activities, such as music (Mozart, classical or Gregorian chants), karate, swimming, yoga or gymnastics.

A qualified occupational therapist can use their advanced training and evaluation skills to help you develop a good sensory diet for your child, so don’t hesitate to contact one if you need to.

I recently got to meet Jodi Ann Mullen. She is the owner of Integrative Counseling Services, an agency that recently moved into Cayuga County and will soon be housed at the Montessori School of the Finger Lakes campus. Integrative Counseling Services offers counseling and play therapy services for children, adolescents and adults. For those of you unfamiliar with it, play therapy can help children develop socially, behaviorally and emotionally, all within a safe and stable environment.

Jodi also recently written a great book called “Naughty No More: A Workbook for Children Who Want to Make Good Decisions.” This book offers simple, kid-friendly activities that provide opportunities for children to learn how to make thoughtful choices even when they are feeling frustrated, angry, sad or scared.

Also at Integrative Counseling is my friend and colleague Penny Lupo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Penny, she is an Auburn native who taught at Neighborhood House for years (she has a degree in early childhood education) before going back to school for counseling and play therapy. She also does yoga instruction with children. The services and expertise Integrative Counseling Services and Penny bring to the Auburn/Cayuga County area is terrific and they will no doubt be a tremendous asset to the community. I wish them all the best.

One last thing: SUPAC (Syracuse University Parent Advocacy Center) with be meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Montessori School of the Finger Lakes. It’s free and open to all parents. The topic will be an overview of laws and regulation. Call 443-4336 or 440-5562 to reserve a spot.

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Bob Trapani is an occupational therapist and owner of Thrive By 5, an early intervention and preschool service provider in Cayuga County, as well as chair of the New York State Occupational Therapy Association and an Advanced DIR Floortime provider.


Features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.