Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L
It goes without saying that you would not try to take a road trip across country without having your car fueled, the proper amount of oil, or working brakes. Or you would not go backpacking across Europe without hiking boots, a backpack, and the daily essentials. So, let’s look at things on a smaller scale, why do we not prepare our children with the proper tools and “fuel” to get through the day. Too many times, especially in the school environment we hear that “there isn’t enough funds for sensory equipment” or “sensory needs are not very important at school”. BUT THEY ARE. In essence we are setting our children up to fail, or even more, have to work harder by not having proper sensory diets developed and in place for staff and parents to carryout.
Children with sensory processing disorder, those on the Autism Spectrum, or children who struggle with attention and self-regulation, need to have the right tools in order to be successful. That starts with the right sensory diet. When developed properly and strategically, a sensory diet is more than just a few suggested activities for your child. It should be individualized and developed with your child’s needs, routine, environment, and resources taken into consideration. Therefore, it requires a team approach, gathering input from all members.
Too often we find that sensory diets are not developed, let alone carried out. And there are many reasons behind this. Whether it be not enough time to develop it, staff or family not having the time or knowledge to implement it, or a child’s lack of interest, there seems to be a reason of why it does not happen. But if we work together as a team, we will find that it can be done, it should be done, and in return we are helping a child be more success, learn with greater ease, and tolerate the day much easier (for the child, parents, and staff).
First, team members should help complete a behavioral analysis throughout the child’s day. This will help establish both the routine, and begin looking at his or her needs. From there, the occupational therapist can help establish some strategies and activities that need to be utilized. In working with the staff and parents, the therapist can determine what will work based on time and other factors during that portion of the day. For example, it cannot be expected that Mom will be able to do a 10 minute one-on-one task in the morning when she is trying to get three children breakfast, pack lunches, do the send off to school, as well as getting herself ready for work. Once the strategies and tasks are determined, the therapist can then develop the diet, providing proper instructions, materials and pictures as needed. In addition, all members of the team need to be trained on their portion of the diet. For example, it Johnny will need to have an oral protocol completed before lunch, just providing a NUK brush to the aide will not do the trick. If a team member is confused or feels as if he or she does not know what to do, they will be less likely to carry out the task. Although time consuming, training and instruction needs to be completed. Once the diet is developed, everyone is trained and on board, it is time to implement. Ongoing assessment and changes need to be done based on needs and behaviors. The occupational therapist should be in charge of making sure new team members are trained, behaviors and needs are assessed and to make changes to the diet as need be.
And you do not have to have the sensory room complete with equipment to develop an effective diet. Sometimes that requires extra time transitioning a child in and out of the classroom. Spark a little creativity…there are plenty of resources both in books and online to help develop activities that are easy to naturally bake in to what is already happening at that point in the day. Teachers and staff need to be willing to share realistically what can be done in the school environment, but also need to be flexible based on what the child’s needs are. Remember, the team is only trying to help the child tolerate the day, changes in routines, and be more successful!
So, as we round the corner and begin our back to school shopping and preparations, let’s take the time to fully develop our child’s sensory diet. Without it, is like sending your child to school “out of gas”!