Does your child have sensory processing issues or sensory processing disorder (SPD)? If so, their occupational therapist or pediatrician may recommend sensory integration therapy.
Children with sensory processing difficulties respond differently to sensory stimuli. They may be overstimulated or understimulated by their senses, which can affect motor skills, behavior, and even learning.
Many families have found sensory integration therapy with an occupational therapist to improve their child’s sensory difficulties. Read on to find out if sensory integration therapy is right for your child.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration is the way our brain processes information from our environment through our senses. When our brain receives information through our senses, we are normally able to organize and respond to that information.
We do this automatically as we move throughout the day. Getting dressed, walking, eating, and other basic tasks are affected by sensory integration. For most children, sensory integration is a natural part of their development that doesn’t require any extra attention.
While we typically talk about the five basic senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste), sensory integration involves two additional sensory systems you may not be familiar with. Of these sensory systems, sensory integration mainly focuses on three.
The 3 primary sensory systems of sensory integration are:
- Tactile. The tactile system refers to our sense of touch. It includes sensations such as pressure, pain, and temperature.
- Vestibular. Our vestibular system is related to balance and directly affects movement. It also allows us to sit or stand upright.
- Proprioceptive. The proprioceptive system is what makes us aware of our body in space. Since it allows us to know where our body is without looking, it affects coordination.
What are Some Signs of Sensory Processing Issues in Kids?
Sometimes referred to as a sensory processing disorder, some children have difficulties processing sensory information from their environment. To put it simply, this can result in either being overstimulated or understimulated by their senses
Some children with sensory processing issues may be extremely sensitive to stimuli such as sounds, certain types of lighting, touch, or strong tastes and smells. They may also experience difficulty with motor skills and coordination. These children can also have difficulty transitioning to new places or activities.
Other children with sensory processing difficulties may feel the need to seek out sensory experiences for stimulation, which can lead to issues with focus and behavior. Sitting still for long periods of time can be difficult, which may lead to problems in school.
Signs of sensory processing difficulties can include:
- Sensitivity to touch
- Dislikes or refuses certain types of clothing
- Refuses foods due to texture
- Dislikes getting their hands wet or dirty
- Difficulty with motor skills and eye-hand coordination
- Poor handwriting skills
- Clumsy and/or frequently falls
- Resists learning new motor skills
- Fearful of playground activities (slides, swings, climbing)
- Difficulty learning to use stairs
- Fearful of uneven surfaces
- Seeks out sensory experiences
Sensory Integration and Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have sensory processing difficulties. They can become overwhelmed by stimuli such as loud noises and certain types of lighting. However, having sensory processing issues does not necessarily mean that your child has ASD. ASD is a developmental disability that can cause a wide range of challenges aside from sensory difficulties.
Sensory processing difficulties have also been seen in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), coordination disorders, and anxiety disorders. Again, having difficulties with sensory processing does not always indicate another problem. If you’re concerned about your child’s development or behavior, it’s always a good idea to talk to their pediatrician.
What is Sensory Integration Therapy?
Sensory integration therapy helps children by gradually exposing them to sensory stimulation in a structured environment with a trained occupational therapist. Through repetition, it aims to increase their ability to tolerate sensory input and ease transitions. Sensory integration therapy for kids is often play-based, using trampolines, swings, jumping, and bouncing.
Sensory integration therapy can also be effective for children who are understimulated by sensory input. Their occupational therapist will teach them techniques to stay focused in school or other activities where under-stimulation may be a problem. This can include using items like fidget toys, which are a less distracting way for children to stay calm and focused.
After evaluating your child’s sensory difficulties, an occupational therapist can determine which sensory exercises will be best for your child’s individual needs.
Activities used in sensory integration therapy can include:
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Bouncing on a therapy ball
- Rocking toys or seesaws
- Playing with mud, play dough, sand, or water
- Wearing weighted vests
- Heavy work activities
- White noise
- Fine motor activities like mazes, puzzles, or threading
- Play tunnels or tents
What is a “Sensory Diet”?
A “sensory diet” is a treatment plan of sensory activities and exercises used to treat sensory issues in kids. Although it sounds like it has something to do with food, it’s just a term occupational therapists sometimes use to describe a set of activities designed around your child’s specific sensory needs.
Your child’s occupational therapist will start by introducing these activities during therapy. After practicing these sensory exercises with an occupational therapist, parents and teachers can support children by helping them to do these activities at home and school.
In time, a sensory diet can help a child become more self-aware and learn to calm themselves down when they become overstimulated. It can also help to improve focus for children who need stimulation.
Sensory diets may include activities such as:
- Jumping jacks
- Yoga poses
- Fidget toys
Is Sensory Integration Therapy Effective in Treating Sensory Processing Issues?
Although research on sensory integration therapy is limited, some studies have found sensory integration therapy to be effective in improving children’s behavior and ability to process sensory input. Many families have found sensory integration therapy with an occupational therapist to be helpful for their child. If your child’s sensory processing difficulties seem to be interfering with their daily life, talk to their pediatrician or occupational therapist to discuss treatment options.
Morin, Amanda. “Sensory Integration Therapy: What You Need to Know.” Understood, Understood, 10 Mar. 2021, https://www.understood.org/articles/en/sensory-integration-therapy-what-you-need-to-know.
Section On Complementary And Integrative Medicine, et al. “Sensory Integration Therapies for Children with Developmental and Behavioral Disorders.” American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 June 2012, https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/129/6/1186/32067/Sensory-Integration-Therapies-for-Children-With?autologincheck=redirected.
“Sensory Integration Therapy.” HealthyChildren.org, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/developmental-disabilities/Pages/Sensory-Integration-Therapy.aspx.
“Hi! My name is Lydia and I’m a freelance writer who specializes in parenting and education. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and worked as a teacher and tutor before deciding to stay home full-time with my two young children. As a mom, I’m passionate about early childhood education and am always looking for fun and practical ways to teach my kids at home.”