What is sensory integration therapy?
Sensory integration is a therapy-based intervention, which people usually do with an occupational therapist. For example, an occupational therapist might design and implement an individual program of sensory experiences for an autistic child.
Who is sensory integration therapy for?
Sensory integration therapy is for people who have sensory processing difficulties, or who have trouble understanding sensory input. This might include autistic children.
What is sensory integration therapy used for?
Sensory integration therapy is used to help children learn to use all their senses together – that is, touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. It’s claimed that this therapy can improve difficulties associated with autism, like challenging behaviour or repetitive behaviour. These behaviours can be related to difficulties with processing sensory information.
Therapists also sometimes suggest that sensory integration therapy can help with other autism characteristics, like difficulties with play and emotional regulation.
Where does sensory integration therapy come from?
The idea that difficulties with processing sensory information could be related to difficulties in everyday life was first proposed by A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and educational psychologist, in the 1950s and 1960s. Ayres developed sensory integration therapy in the late 1970s as a treatment for children with sensory processing difficulties.
Some forms of sensory integration therapy are called Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) intervention. This type of sensory integration therapy tends to focus on goals and is more systematic than other types of sensory integration therapy.
What is the idea behind sensory integration therapy?
Most people experience events that stimulate more than one sense at the same time. For example, when we read a book, we see the words on the page, we hear the pages turning, and we feel the book in our hands. We might even be able to smell the book if it’s old or dusty. We take in all this varied sensory information and combine it to give us a clear understanding of the world around us.
Autistic children can have trouble combining sensory information in this way. The idea of sensory integration therapy is to use physical activities and exercises to help children learn to interpret and use sensory information more effectively.
What does sensory integration therapy involve?
Sensory integration therapy starts with an assessment of the child by an occupational therapist. The therapist then plans and conducts a program that includes activities to stimulate sensory responses from the child – in particular, responses to do with balance and physical movement. This might include things like swinging, bouncing or climbing.
Sensory integration therapy is designed to be part of wider programs that also include communication, behavioural and educational therapies.
The cost of this therapy depends on the number of sessions the child has with an occupational therapist.
You can contact the NDIS to find out whether sensory integration therapy can be included in children’s NDIS plans.
Does sensory integration therapy work?
More high-quality research is needed to find out whether sensory integration therapy works. Some studies have suggested that it might help children achieve some goals, but there are problems with the way these studies were designed.
Also, it isn’t clear how the therapy helps children. That is, does it help with sensory processing difficulties – for example, do children become less sensitive to touch or smell? And do any changes to children’s sensory processing abilities help with their daily life or other skills?
Several studies have noted that the therapy has negative effects like increased self-harming behaviour and increased repetitive movements like arm-waving or body-rocking.
Who practises sensory integration therapy?
Occupational therapists trained in sensory integration therapy can use this method.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is having sensory integration therapy, you implement some of the activities at home as part of the program. The occupational therapist might prepare a written plan and teach you the techniques to use at home.
Where can you find a practitioner?
You can find an occupational therapist by going to Occupational Therapy Australia – Find an OT. Check that the occupational therapist is trained in sensory integration.
If you’re interested in sensory integration therapy, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.