Sensory Diet Concept

  • A sensory diet is an occupational therapy intervention strategy devised to attain and maintain appropriate arousal states throughout each day.
  • A sensory diet consists of a carefully planned program of specific sensory-motor activities that is scheduled according to each child’s individual needs (Wilbarger & Wilbarger, 2002) and each family’s schedule and resources.
  • A sensory diet can help maintain an age appropriate level of attention for optimal function to reduce sensory defensiveness.
  • Like a diet designed to meet an individual’s nutritional needs, a sensory diet consists of specific elements designed to meet the child’s sensory integration needs.
  • The sensory diet is based on the notion that controlled sensory input can affect one’s functional abilities. Martin (1991) states in Principles of Neuroscience:Sensory systems are not only our means for perceiving the external world, but are also essential to maintaining arousal, forming our body image and regulating movement.

Wilbarger & Wilbarger’s (2000) comprehensive approach to treating sensory defensiveness includes

  • Education and awareness
  • A sensory diet
  • Other professional treatment techniques.

One such technique is the Wilbarger Protocol or Therapressure technique, which uses deep pressure to certain parts of the body followed by proprioception in the form of joint compressions. The Wilbargers also have a specific protocol for addressing oral sensory defensiveness.

Either of these strategies is used in combination with an overall sensory diet which coordinates sensory motor activity into the life routine of the individual it is designed for. It is critical that this protocol is not used in isolation and that it is initiated and monitored by an appropriately trained occupational therapist.

The How Does Your Engine Run? Program (Williams & Shellenberger, 1994) is a step-by-step curriculum that teaches children simple changes to their daily routine (such as a brisk walk, jumping on a trampoline prior to doing their homework, listening to calming music) that will help them self-regulate or keep their engine running “just right.”

Through the use of charts, worksheets, and activities, the child is guided in improving awareness and using self-regulation strategies. The use of this program greatly enhances the overall structure and effectiveness of the sensory diet.

We know that difficulties with sensory integration can have a profound effect on a child’s participation in everyday childhood “occupations” – play, school and family activities.

  • Collaboration between the therapist, teacher and parents is the most efficient way to understand the child’s behavior and unique sensory needs.
  • The “therapist, teacher, parent” team must work together to successfully implement a sensory diet, to support the child’s performance in roles and occupations across multiple environments.

Typically, a sensory diet is best designed by the family and therapist together. The therapist utilizes the direct treatment time to learn the individual child’s “formula” for attaining and maintaining appropriate sensory reactivity and arousal modulation.

Use of the Sensory Diet Template

The sensory diet typically is comprised of:

  1. A Schedule of the Key Events in the individual’s day – serves as the guide for when to introduce the specific sensory diet activity
  2. Sensory Diet Activities
    1. The sensory diet activities are designed for the individual but are based on sound neuroscience principles about how the brain takes in and makes use of sensory input to create optimal states of arousal and performance.
    2. The neuroscience evidence suggests that several key types of sensory input have the qualities required to produce these effects.
    3. The key types of sensory input include input to the touch, pressure, muscle and joint receptors (tactile and proprioceptors), movement input, oral tactile/proprioceptive input, respiration, and auditory/rhythm input.
    4. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration has the expertise to know how to use these neural principles to design an appropriate sensory diet.
  3. Transition Strategy/Routines for Success

The sensory diet allows you to anticipate the events of the day (transitions) that need extra sensory support. Typically, these sensory supports are set up in routines to ease the transition. The types of sensory input are similar to those in the sensory diet activities.



How Does Your Engine Run Program – aka: Alert Program (


Sarah 'Mouse' Scharfenaker, MA, CCC-SLPSarah “Mouse” Scharfenaker, MA, CCC-SLP
fondly known as “Mouse”, is vice-president, CFO and co-founder of Developmental FX. She has worked in the fields of Fragile X syndrome and neurodevelopmental disorders for more than 25 years. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Montana, Missoula.
Tracy Stackhouse, MA, OTRTracy Stackhouse, MA, OTR
a Colorado native, is president and co-founder of Developmental FX. She is a leading pediatric occupational therapist (OT) involved in clinical treatment, research, mentoring, and training regarding OT intervention for persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, especially Fragile X syndrome and autism.

Developmental FX

Source: Sensory Diet Handout – Developmental FX (2008)