What is Sensory Integration Therapy?

a child's hand seen covered in red paint and resting on a canvas that has yellow and green paint smudged on it.

This article first appeared on Harkla.co. Harkla makes weighted blankets for Autism, Anxiety, and ADHD.

Sensory integration is the process through which we sense the world around us. We use our sensory organs to receive information and, on a higher level, we organize it so we understand our surroundings and respond appropriately. To sum it all up: we perceive, organize, modulate and interpret sensory information. Most people don’t realize that breakdowns in sensory processing can affect behavior, communication, function, and successful participation in daily life. When we hear the buzz of a bee near our head, we immediately swat in an attempt to avoid being bitten. The smell of burning in the kitchen alerts us to the possibility of a fire and we act in order to prevent danger. Our body is naturally equipped to both protect us and make sense of information so that we can effectively participate in daily life. When sensory integration works smoothly we feel prepared and comfortable in our surroundings. However, when sensory processing disorder is present, life can be quite miserable. Children may even shut down and completely disengage with their surroundings if they experience extreme sensory overreactions.

What Is Sensory Integration?

According to the STAR Center, sensory processing disorders affect up to one in every twenty children and the numbers keep rising. More research is being done to look at the causes and frequency of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In fact, the name has even been changed from Sensory Integration (SI) Dysfunction as our understanding and knowledge base has increased. SPD is a complex disorder of the brain, which results in difficulty with processing information that comes from our senses. It is important to realize that there are more than just  the five senses that most of us are familiar with. Information is taken in from touch, smell, vision, hearing, taste, vestibular, internal organs (interoception), and proprioceptive receptors. Vestibular receptors are responsible for detecting changes in position in space, balance, and movement. Proprioceptive receptors provide information about body awareness, position, and posture. Interoception involves the internal regulation responses in our body such as:  hunger, thirst, blood pressure, and even toileting urges.

Throughout our lives, we are constantly bombarded with information we receive through our senses, and we must successfully integrate this information to make sense of it and form an appropriate response. There are times when the response we form does not match the information we have received. For example, a student may have a panic type response when another child simply brushes against him in line. Another example is when a student feels pain when wearing clothing with tags or seams. What’s interesting about sensory processing, is that most activities require us to combine information we obtain from different senses at the same time! When you close your eyes to wash your hair, you know exactly where to place your shampoo-filled hands. Even though you’re not looking, you use your fingers to rub in the shampoo and feel when your hair is soapy. This activity uses tactile (touch), proprioception (position in space), and vestibular (balance so you don’t fall over with your eyes closed). If a person gets dizzy when her eyes are closed, she would have a great deal of difficulty washing her hair since she must keep her eyes open, and getting soap in her eyes is a real possibility!

What Is Sensory Integration Therapy?

Sensory integration therapy is one technique used by occupational therapists (OTs). Through fun and play-based activities, OTs attempt to change how the brain reacts to touch, sound, sight and movement. For example, a child comes to therapy with difficulty functioning in daily life. She has great difficulty bathing, dressing, getting her hands and feet dirty and her sensory issues cause her great stress each day at home. The OT begins by assessing the child’s sensory system. Specially designed checklists are filled out by both caregiver and therapist in order to determine which systems are affected. Sometimes, one sensory area is over responsive (hyperresponsive) while another needs more information (hyporesponsive). We all have ways of protecting ourselves from danger, but if a child’s tactile system is over-responsive, she may feel PAIN or discomfort touching something sticky. Further, she may completely shut down and show behavioral issues.

The OT may begin the treatment session with an obstacle course which the child views as a fun challenge. However, the course was carefully designed to provide sensory input to her joints and calming pressure to her body. Next comes a fun puzzle. However, the puzzle pieces may be placed into a sticky or wet substance such as Jell-O or water beads placed into a bin. The child often has so much fun playing the game that she forgets she’s placing her hands into the very thing she doesn’t like!  Common items seen in clinics where occupational therapists use sensory integrative techniques include swings, trampolines, soft brushes, and scooters. While the room may look like play place or a gym setting, sensory integration therapy requires training and education that the OT must obtain in order to perform therapy safely and effectively. The problem is that other professionals or untrained clinicians make claims or improperly complete activities which are labeled as SI. It is important for consumers to ask the therapist, when scheduling the appointment, about specific training or courses the therapist has taken. For example, specific knowledge of how movement, such as spinning, affects the child’s system is critical for safe and effective treatment. Educate yourself about SI by reading websites such as the STAR Center and documents prepared by the American Occupational Therapy Association. Check out this link to one on sensory integration.

Additionally, this study backs up parent reports that sensory integration therapy improves daily function in children with autism. The research, led by occupational therapists at Philadelphia’s Jefferson School of Health Professions, was funded by an Autism Speaks treatment research grant.

What Are Some Goals Of Sensory Integration Therapy?

Since sensory processing affects many body systems, the effects of inefficient processing can be seen in many functional areas. A child may show extreme intolerance during mealtime, by eating a very limited diet and prefer only certain temperatures and textures. The goal would be to increase the variety of food in his diet and decrease gagging and vomiting so he can comfortably eat a meal. Another child who becomes extremely upset when dressing and bathing might require techniques such as adding a sensory activity regularly throughout her day. This helps to ‘balance’ and regulate her sensory system so she can tolerate daily self-care without behavioral issues.

Your child’s behavior is a form of communication and a qualified occupational therapist can help to tease out SPD issues. SPD can stand alone or come along with many medical, cognitive, and stress-related conditions. When provided correctly and if the child’s system responds well, sensory integration therapy can significantly help children live an improved quality of life.

And remember, you can provide your child with appropriate sensory activities at home. Consult with your child’s OT in order to follow a sensory diet designed to meet your child’s specific needs. Check out our article on creating your own Sensory Tool Box!

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