Sensory integration is a term that has been used to describe processes in the brain that allow us to take information we receive from our 5 senses, organize it, and respond appropriately. We also have a vestibular sense (balance) that tells us how to position our bodies and heads, and a proprioceptive sense (awareness of body in space) that helps us know what we do with our joints, muscles, and ligaments.
Sensory Processing Deficits and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)
In children who have ASDs, sensory processing deficits have been theorized to cause difficulties that affect behavior and life skills. As a result, some children may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to stimuli in the surroundings. Loud music, for instance, may cause intense discomfort, while bright fluorescent lights that bother others may be riveting to some children with ASDs. Children with sensory processing deficits may have difficulty with motor skills, balance, and eye-hand coordination. Some children will look for ways to seek out certain sensations and engage in self-stimulating behaviors like rocking back and forth, head banging, and oral exploration of nonedible objects.
What is Sensory Integration Therapy?
Sensory integration therapy, which was developed in the 1970s by an OT, A. Jean Ayres, is designed to help children with sensory-processing problems (including possibly those with ASDs) cope with the difficulties they have processing sensory input. Therapy sessions are play-oriented and may include using equipment such as swings, trampolines, and slides.
Sensory integration also uses therapies such as deep pressure, brushing, weighted vests, and swinging. These therapies appear to sometimes be able to calm an anxious child. In addition, sensory integration therapy is believed to increase a child’s threshold for tolerating sensory-rich environments, make transitions less disturbing, and reinforce positive behaviors.
Effectiveness of Sensory Integration Therapy
Although there are scientific studies to show that children with ASDs are more likely to have sensory-processing problems, the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy as a therapy for ASDs is limited and inconclusive. While this does not mean that the therapy might not be helpful in some children, effectiveness so far is mainly based on personal experiences.
Talk with your child’s pediatrician if you suspect that your child has difficulties with sensory processing; there may be resources in the community for further evaluation.
Other Methods for Controlling Sensory Input
You may also learn about auditory integration training or behavioral optometry as methods for controlling sensory input. Both treatments aim to alter the child’s response to sensory stimuli, but neither method has proved to be scientifically valid. Also, there is no evidence that any problems seen with ASDs are related to these auditory or visual problems.