Information from the environment bombards our senses daily, which can be challenging for children with autism (ASD). The good news is sensory integration (SI) therapy helps us understand and incorporate this information into our behavior. This article will explore how SI therapy can help those with autism live more comfortably.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration is the process of taking in information from our senses and using it to make sense of the world around us. It helps us understand what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. It can affect how we feel physically and emotionally.
How Does SI Work?
Sensory integration works in several ways to enable us to make sense of the world around us. Here is a brief description of the process:
- Our senses take in information about our environment
- The brain processes this information so that we can respond appropriately
- The data is then used to help us move, think and interact with the environment meaningfully
For example, if it’s cold out, we wear a coat.
How Does SI Help Us?
Sensory integration helps us to make sense of our environment so that we can function in everyday life. It allows us to:
- Interpret sensory input accurately
- Adapt to changes in the environment
- Participate safely and comfortably
We use sensory integration in every aspect of our daily lives, from brushing our teeth to socializing with our friends. Now that you understand the framework of SI, let’s examine how our bodies absorb information from the world around us.
How is Sensory Information Received From the Human Body?
There are five senses, right? Wrong. We actually rely on eight sensory systems when interpreting our environment. Let’s break down each for you:
- Sight (vision). The eyes are the main part of our body that receives visual information.
- Hearing (auditory system). Our ears help us to hear sound waves and interpret them as sounds.
- Taste (gustatory system). Our tongues and taste buds sense chemicals in food that give us a feeling of sweet, salty, sour, or bitter flavors.
- Smell (olfactory system). Special nerve cells in our nose detect molecules from the air around us that we recognize as smells.
- Touch (tactile system). We can feel pressure on our skin when something touches it because special sensors send signals to our brains about what’s touching us.
- Proprioception (sense of body awareness). Our muscles, joints, and ligaments tell our brains how our body is positioned in space.
- Interoception (how we feel inside our bodies). Internal organs like the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines send signals to our brains that let us know what’s happening inside our bodies.
- Balance (vestibular system). This lets us know in which direction we are moving in relation to gravity.
We often hear the terms sensory processing and sensory integration used together. But are they the same thing? Well, yes, and no.
What is the Difference Between Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing?
Sensory integration and sensory processing are two terms describing how our brains process information from our senses. Sensory integration was first developed by Dr. A Jean Ayres in the 1970s, while Dr. Lucy Miller later refined this concept and created a model of “sensory processing disorder.”
The main difference between these concepts is that sensory integration looks at how we take in, organize, and make sense of sensations. In contrast, sensory processing focuses on how we respond to those sensations through behavior.
Overall, these terms are often used interchangeably, depending on where the medical professional was trained. What matters most is the challenges that may occur if these systems aren’t working properly.
What do Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing Difficulties Look Like?
If the signals that come to us from our senses are either too weak or too strong, or if our brain reacts inappropriately to them, it can lead to sensory integration issues. This can show up in someone’s behavior.
They may feel overwhelmed and distressed by the amount of sensation coming at them – this is known as ‘sensory overload.’ People can be overly sensitive to certain feelings, not sensitive enough, or a combination of both.
People with autism experience these sensations far more intensely. You may feel overwhelmed by certain sounds, smells, textures, or even temperatures that don’t bother most other people.
It may be hard to focus on tasks if you are constantly bombarded by too much stimulation in the environment around you, and it can also be difficult to block out noise when you want to concentrate on something else. Here’s a breakdown of why this happens.
Four Common Sensory Integration Challenges
There are four problems most children with sensory integration issues experience:
- Sensory modulation issues. When the brain over- or under-responds to stimuli, problems occur. One person could be oversensitive to certain sounds but undersensitive to others. A person’s sensitivity may also depend on their environment; they could become more aware of sensations in stressful situations while less responsive in calm settings.
- Sensory discrimination and perceptual problems. If you have autism, your brain may struggle to make sense of the information it receives. This can lead to difficulties with touch sensitivity, including clumsiness or using too much or too little force when performing tasks. If it’s related to visual perception, you may need help locating objects in a messy setting or picking out a word on a page.
- Vestibular bilateral functional problems. Have you ever noticed that it can be challenging to maintain balance or coordinate movements with both sides of your body? This could be due to vestibular bilateral functional problems. A qualified SI practitioner will help diagnose if this is the case and work on overcoming these issues. With proper intervention, individuals can improve their ability to stay steady and coordinated when performing daily activities.
- Praxis problems. Praxis is the medical term for how our brain plans and executes movements. This could be learning to jump for children or more complex skills for adults. When sensory information isn’t processed correctly, it can make new activities difficult.
Now that you understand what can go wrong with your child’s sensory integration system let’s discuss ways to make it right.
What is Sensory Integration Therapy?
Sensory integration therapy is a specialized treatment that should only be done by an expert. These professionals are highly-qualified occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, or physiotherapists who have undergone additional, intensive field training.
This protocol aims to help people with autism better process sensory information. It involves understanding how the brain processes and responds to various inputs, such as sound or touch.
With this knowledge, therapists design activities and treatments to help individuals with autism learn how to respond appropriately to different stimuli. The goal is for these individuals to function more effectively in their day-to-day lives.
Some activities included in sensory therapy may be:
- Structured exposure to sensory input, such as playing music or using scents and textures
- Movement therapy, like stretching, and jumping exercises
- Balance treatments, including yoga poses, standing on one leg, and other coordination activities
- Customized physical activities tailored to your needs and preferences
- Environmental or routine accommodations, changing the atmosphere around you for more comfort
Your child’s SI practitioner will use input from family, school teachers, and other professionals to create an individualized plan called a ‘sensory diet’ for them. This list contains specific activities and accommodations tailored to their particular needs.
These activities provide the correct amount of sensory input during therapy sessions and at home or school.
Sensory Integration Therapy for Children with Autism
If you have a child with autism, they may struggle to interpret and use sensory information. Sensory integration therapy is an option that could help them understand the world around them better.
This type of therapy uses physical activities and exercises to assist kids in understanding multiple sensations at once. For instance, when we read a book, we take in several senses – sight (seeing the words on the page), sound (hearing pages turn), and touch (feeling the book in our hands).
We then combine this sensory input to get a complete picture of what’s happening. Unfortunately, children with autism can have trouble interpreting and using these sensations. That’s where sensory integration therapy comes in.
Through physical activities, children can learn to combine multiple senses more effectively. It’s like a puzzle – the therapist will provide exercises that help your child learn how to make sense of all the input they get from their environment.
Such therapies can be highly beneficial for children with ASD and enable them to better understand the world around them. But do they really work?
Does Sensory Integration Theory Help children with Autism?
It’s hard to know if sensory integration therapy will help your child on the spectrum since more research is needed. Studies so far suggest that the treatment might lead to improvements in some areas, but there are issues with how these studies were designed.
First, it isn’t clear what the therapy can do – does it lessen sensitivity to touch or smell? It’s essential to be aware of potential adverse effects. Several studies have indicated that self-harming behavior may increase after using sensory integration therapy.
Before deciding whether this therapy suits your child, weigh the pros and cons.
Sensory integration therapy is a new frontier to explore in the autism landscape. While research still needs to be done, many believe it offers an array of benefits and opportunities for children with ASD to improve their quality of life.
By creating sensory “diets,” qualified professionals can help children with autism to process sensory input better and respond in healthier, more regulated ways. Therapies done at home between sessions allow parents and caregivers to support their child’s development further.
If you feel this may be a good fit for your family, don’t hesitate to contact a specialist today who can help you explore the potential benefits of sensory integration therapy. With a knowledgeable and experienced professional by your side, you can provide your child with the opportunity to lead a healthier, more fulfilling life.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.