Teens with Sensory Processing Disorder, SPD, may struggle either with being lethargic and unmotivated, or with being hyper, over-stimulated, easily irritated and unable to focus on the task at hand. The aim of creating a sensory diet in teens is for them to develop habits and patterns of self-regulating behavior that will enable them to function optimally as adults. Some occupational therapists have found that following a regular sensory diet may restructure your child’s nervous system over time so that his body becomes better able to regulate itself. Be consistent in applying the sensory diet on a daily basis and through all spheres of life.
Involve your teen in identifying events and occasions that make him feel overwhelmed, irritable or lethargic. Have your teen keep a journal for a week or two and record your own observations as well. Recall occasions at home, school and socially which were negative experiences and try to identify what the triggers were. Note what activities helped him to feel better afterwards. Work together to identify activities that help him to feel more calm, more in control and motivated.
Consider buying or installing a swing or hammock, or making daily use of the swings in a nearby park. Activities involving movement have been found to decrease stress chemicals in the brain and will help your teen to calm down or feel more organized. Trampolines and rocking chairs are also helpful.
Engage your teen in heavy work such as raking, digging, mowing and vacuuming, which will give proprioceptive input that is calming and organizing. A lethargic teen may feel more aroused and motivated after doing heavy muscle work. Deep pressure can also be helpful. Some teens benefit from massages, while others feel more alert after using a vibrating toothbrush. Plan the best times of day to do these activities.
Find out what sounds soothe or motivate your teen. Playing soft music may help your teen to relax and focus after a hard day at school, or playing natural noise in the background may help her to focus on homework. Some teens find the noise of a water feature or fish aquarium soothing, while lethargic teens may feel energized after listening to pop music. Decide how and when to incorporate these auditory activities into the daily routine.
Decrease clutter if your teen is easily over-stimulated and irritated by a messy environment. Keep the workspace neat and provide effective storage options for stationery. Remember that colors can be calming or stimulating, so use colors wisely in your home.
Think about smells and tastes that your teen finds helpful. A lethargic teen may find that chewing sour sweets and strong peppermints or eating citrus fruits keeps him alert, while an irritated teen may find the scent of vanilla calming. Help your teen to plan how to use helpful smells and tastes at various points in his day.
Speak to your teen’s school. Making use of regular sensory activities during the school day should help your teen to work more effectively. If your teen’s school is not convinced, ask them to allow it for a trial period and then evaluate it. Some ideas are: taking brief exercise breaks to walk, stretch, do pushups or jumping jacks; making use of an audio player to listen to music that soothes or stimulates her; allowing her to fidget with a stretchy or squishy object in her pocket; or allowing her to chew on an acceptable object. Experiment with different seating positions in the classroom to find the most suitable one.
It is essential to consult an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory integration to oversee and monitor the sensory diet for your teen.