What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration (or sensory processing) is the theory of how the brain interprets the sensory information it receives, compares it to other information coming in, as well as to information stored in the memory, and then uses all of this information to help an individual respond to their environment. Sensory integration is vital in everything that we do.
Sensory Integration Difficulties
Difficulties with receiving and processing sensory information from one’s body and environment could relate to difficulties at school or using one’s body to engage in everyday life. Sensory integration difficulties (sometimes referred to as sensory processing difficulties or sensory processing disorder) can occur in combination with other diagnoses including: Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Attention Deficit, Learning Disabilities, Developmental Coordination Disorder and Regulatory Disorder.
Our understanding of sensory integration was initially developed in the late 60s and 70s by Dr Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and psychologist with an understanding of neuroscience, who developed the theory and practice of Ayres’ Sensory Integration.
Ayres’ Sensory Integration Therapy®
Ayres’ Sensory Integration Therapy® is a specialised treatment approach which meets the criteria for an evidence-based practice for children with ASD (1). Atypical sensory reactivity can significantly affect adaptive behaviours and everyday functioning such as sleep (2), play (3) and family life (4). When used in suitably equipped settings (5) by therapists with a postgraduate qualification in sensory integration, it can improve and increase:
functional skills, independence, social participation and educational attainment of children with ASD
adaptive responses to environmental challenges where there are atypical sensory responses (6) (7) (8) (9). This can mean a reduction in challenging behaviours for some children.
Sensory integration therapy should only be carried out by a qualified SI Practitioner: this is a qualified occupational therapist, speech and language therapist or physiotherapist who has undertaken additional, rigorous postgraduate training in SI. This training involves developing a detailed understanding of the neuroscience and evidence base underpinning sensory integration as well as developing expertise in assessing and providing intervention for people with sensory integration problems.
Using Sensory Integration Therapy with ASD: A Case Study: Leo
Stock image: not actual case subject.
By the age of 11, Leo lived in his own little world. A once caring child, Leo had become aggressive and sensitive to noise, and he demanded a very rigid routine. He was diagnosed with an intellectual disability and autism. As a teenager, Leo displayed extremely challenging behaviour, and:
Couldn’t cope with the journey to school
Had frequent and uncontrollable meltdowns
Threw furniture around the classroom and at other pupils and staff
Made little progress in learning
Could not be managed at home.
His mother described every day as ‘a bad day’.
A long-term out of area residential placement (circa £180k pa) was being considered for Leo’s and others safety.
Introducing Ayres’ Sensory Integration Therapy®
Before the placement, Leo was identified as having significant sensory integration challenges. He received a comprehensive assessment and weekly term-time Ayres’ Sensory Integration Therapy® from an Occupational Therapist (51 x 1-hour sessions over 15 months).
Stock image: not actual case subject.
Leo has made demonstrable and significant functional gains. He:
Can walk, run and climb stairs
Is still at home where he now helps with chores
Is engaged with learning and attending a local further education college
Is enjoying learning how to manage money
Attends karate classes with his older brother
Mum now describes Leo as having ‘nothing but good days’.
Find out about training as a Sensory Integration Practitioner here.
Find a qualified Sensory Integration Practitioner here.
(1) According to The National Professional Development Centre on ASD; The Council for Exceptional Children Guidelines for Identifying Evidence Based Practices in Special Education; and the US Preventive Services Task Force Guidelines for Evidence Reviews.
(2) Reynolds S, Lane S & Thacker L, (2011), Sensory Processing, Physiological Stress, And Sleep Behaviours In Children With And Without Autism Spectrum Disorders, Occupational Therapy Journal of Research: Occupation, Participation and Health, vol 32, 1 p246-257.
(3) Bodison S, (2015), Developmental Dyspraxia And The Play Skills Of Children With Autism, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol 69, 5 p6.
(4) Bagby M S, Dickie V A & Baranek G T, (2009), How Sensory Experiences Of Children With And Without Autism Affect Family Occupations, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol 66, 1 p78-86.
(5)Parham ID, Roley, SS, May-Benson TA, et al, (2011), Development Of A Fidelity Measure For Research On The Effectiveness Of The Ayres Sensory Integration Intervention, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol 65, 2 p133-42.
(6) Pfeiffer B A, (2011), Effectiveness Of Sensory Integration Interventions In Children With Autistic Spectrum Disorders; A Pilot Study, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol 65, 1 p76-85.
(7) Schaaf R C, Benevides T, Mailoux Z, et al, (2013), An Intervention For Sensory Difficulties In Children With Autism: A Randomized Trial, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 44, 7 p1493-1506.
(8) Case-Smith J, Weaver L L & Fristad M A, (2014), A Systematic Review Of Sensory Processing Interventions For Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders, University of York, Centre for Research and Dissemination (Pubmed).
(9) Koenig K P & Rudney S G, (2010), Performance Challenges For Children And Adolescents With Difficulty Processing And Integration Sensory Information: A Systematic Review, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol 64, p430-442.