Anyone who has ever met Philip for even a brief moment knows he is one energetic kid. Some of the things people have said about him regarding his energy are: “He’s got ants in his pants,” “I wish I could harness that energy. It could power my home,” “He just keeps going and going. He’s the Energizer Bunny,” and my own expression, “Philip, you are full of lightning bolts.” When Philip transitioned to public school, I quickly realized that the academics was going to be the easy part. The hard part was going to be sensory issues, impulse control, and keeping it together to avoid meltdowns for a variety of reasons. Philip’s teachers have been remarkable for working on all the components Philip needs to succeed in school and life. Not only have they been teaching Philip age appropriate academics and allowing him to communicate with his letterboard, they have also been working hard to learn Philip’s sensory needs to help him stay focused and calm. They have incorporated “sensory breaks” like exercising with weights and allowing Philip to listen to music on his headphones. Two days ago, Philip’s teacher wrote a note asking me what sensory materials Philip would seek out so he could incorporate them and fine tune his sensory diet.
“Sensory diet” is a term that was first coined by an occupational therapist named Patricia Wilbarger. It is an individualized schedule of sensory activities to help a person optimize their nervous system to concentrate and function properly throughout the day. Depending on a person’s needs, activities can serve to arouse or calm the nervous system. In Philip’s case, lots of calming activities serve him best. I will be honest; in the past I did not put much stock in the sensory integration component of autism. I am only recently investigating it and seeing its very real importance.
One of the great things about Philip being able to communicate is that I no longer have to guess about Philip’s needs. I can simply ask him. So I asked him what he felt his body needed to stay regulated so he could function best at school. Our conversation went as follows:
Lisa: What is body regulation?
Philip: It means my body is in tune with my mind.
L: When is your body most regulated?
P: When I am solidly placed in my surroundings. It helps to meet my senses leading me like smell and touch and mouthing things.
L: Do you need a sensory diet?
P: I need a sensory diet badly.
L: What things will help?
P: Doing exercises. I understand weights set me at ease. Need muscle power to achieve more noticeable body awareness. Weight bearing like lifting and pulling.
Quiet time relaxes me.Meeting water.
L: Like swimming?
P: Smelling will be helpful for learning. Some candles can be useful. (my note- Philip often likes smelling people’s perfume or deodorant and the candle in our bathroom).
L: What scents?
P: A beach candle (the scent of our bathroom candle) or a pear candle.
L: How do smells help?
P: Smells are useful for mental health. Some smells are healing from treason of body.
L: What is treason of body?
P: When my body is out of control from mean sensations.
After having this conversation with Philip, I decided to help his teachers out by buying some of these things to help make up Philip’s sensory diet. The teachers already had weights, so I bought a resistance band to incorporate pulling exercises. I also went to Yankee Candle to buy some tea lights with relaxing beach scents and fruit scents. I packed his backpack with these and a copy of our conversation so the teachers would know Philip’s sensory needs in his own words.
Philip also wrote yesterday morning. “I need to engage my senses to learn about my placement in my surroundings. I need a sensory diet to get my bearings. Each day my body makes improvements in finding itself. I love my senses. They help me a lot. I am eager to verily make improvements at school with my sensory diet.”
After writing, Philip did some bouncing on his yoga ball, 10 sit-ups, and 10 weight lifts before getting on the bus to go to school.
When Philip returned from school, I received one of the best notes from his teacher ever! His teacher thanked me for sending the materials and said Philip benefited tremendously. He had done a great job in all his work and got the rare “GREAT” day circled (1 of only 2 times I can remember from a 4 point scale from 1 being poor to 4 being great). It was exciting to see how well Philip did and to discover yet another way to help him.