If your child “misbehaves,” you might be quick to assume he needs discipline. When he puts everything he touches into his mouth, your initial reaction is almost always “don’t do that!” You might not realize your child’s desire to receive that oral stimulation is also an attempt to stay organized, pay attention or calm himself with sensory input. With a well-rounded sensory diet, your child can limit these sensory seeking behaviors.
Just like baking the perfect cake, you need to have the right ingredients in the proper proportions. In addition to the five senses you are likely already familiar with -- taste, touch, smell, hearing and vision -- you need to incorporate proprioceptive and vestibular senses. Proprioception refers to sensations from muscles and joints that are best felt with activities like pulling, pushing or lifting. Vestibular sense refers to the sense of movement, and activities like spinning or hanging upside down provide the most intense vestibular input.
The Main Course
Your child’s sensory diet should have proprioceptive and vestibular activities at its core. According to occupational therapist Patricia Wilbarger, who coined the term “sensory diet,” these activities have the longest-lasting impacts on the nervous system. Try activities like sitting and bouncing on large hop balls, filling a pot with water and carrying it to a destination, swinging upside down from monkey bars or doing a few push-ups. You might ask, “What do these activities have to do with oral seeking behaviors?” -- the point of a sensory diet is to address all sensations, and the better all the senses are integrated, the more your child will be able to tolerate sensations or limit sensory seeking because all his sensory needs will be met.
Incorporating Oral Senses
While it might seem counterintuitive to you, address oral seeking behaviors by giving your child something appropriate to put into his mouth. Some companies even make jewelry or pencils made for chewing, so your child can be more discreet than chewing on his shirt sleeve. Additionally, let your child help you with food preparation and try new foods that have a strong flavor, which will arouse your child’s taste sense. Try a mixture of hot and very cold foods (think ice pops) as well.
Plan sensory diet activities for every part of your child’s day. In the morning, if you feel your child needs more arousing activities, have him jump on a trampoline for a few minutes and prepare a crunchy cereal for breakfast. If your child needs more calming sensations, provide him with a foot massage and listen to calming music during breakfast. In the afternoon or after school, go to the park and practice activities like hanging from the monkey bars or riding on a swing. For an afternoon snack, have your child suck through a straw and eat chewy snacks. Let your child help you cook dinner and encourage him to help you pick flavors. In the evening, try a bubble bath with a calming scent like lavender and read a bedtime story.