Sensory Integration Therapy and Autism

Mother and son touching hands covered in wet paint

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Sensory processing dysfunction (over and/or under-sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, or touch) has long been described as a symptom of autism. In 2013, with the DSM-5 (the newest version of the diagnostic manual), sensory issues became an official part of the diagnosis, described as: "Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement)." 

Sensory dysfunction can be disabling because it interferes with so many ordinary activities of daily life. A relatively new technique, sensory integration therapy, was developed to help people with and without autism to lower their reactivity and improve their ability to participate in a wide range of activities.

Sensory Processing Dysfunction in Autism

Many people with autism are hypersensitive or under-sensitive to light, noise, and touch. They may be unable to stand the sound of a dishwasher, or, on the other extreme, need to flap and even injure themselves to be fully aware of their bodies. These sensory differences are sometimes called "sensory processing disorder" or "sensory processing dysfunction," and they may be treatable with sensory integration therapy.

Sensory processing involves taking in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organizing and interpreting that information, and making a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic.

People who have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, don’t experience these interactions in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information that comes in and how they respond with the emotional, motor, and other reactions. For example, some children with autism feel as if they're being constantly bombarded with sensory information.

Sensory integration therapy is essentially a form of occupational therapy, and it is generally offered by specially trained occupational therapists. It involves specific sensory activities to help a child appropriately respond to light, sound, touch, smells, and other input. Interventions may include swinging, brushing, playing in a ball pit, and many other sensory-related activities. The outcome of these activities may be better focus, improved behavior, and even lowered anxiety.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy can make a real difference by helping individuals to manage their sensitivities and cravings. The American Occupational Therapy Association describes several types of remediation that can help with both sensory challenges and the performance challenges that can go along with them:

  • Remedial intervention involving the use of sensory and motor activities and equipment (e.g., swinging, massage) 
  • Accommodations and adaptations wearing earplugs or headphones to diminish noise, or using a textured sponge in the shower
  • Sensory diet programs involving a daily menu plan which includes individualized, supportive sensory strategies (e.g., quiet space, aromatherapy, weighted blanket), physical activities, and tangible items (e.g., stress balls or other items for distraction)
  • Environmental modifications to decrease sensory stimulation such white noise machines, art work, and other types of decor/furnishings
  • Education for involved individuals, including family members, caregivers, and administrators, about the influence of sensory functions on performance and ways to minimize their negative impact on function

In the long run, sensory integration therapy can decrease the need for adaptations and help individuals become more functional at home, at school, and in the workplace.

Research on Sensory Integration Therapy

There have been many studies that have measured the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy for children with autism. Today, sensory integration therapy has become one of the most requested and utilized interventions for autism.

Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) therapy was developed to provide occupational therapists with a set of guidelines for how to provide consistent intervention. A review of studies that provided ASI therapy between 2006-2017 concluded that ASI is an effective intervention for the autistic population, especially those who are four–12 years of age.

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Article Sources
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