Sensory Integration and Autism in Occupational Therapy

If your child has recently received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, you have likely discovered a lot of information regarding the diagnosis, symptoms, resources, and potential therapy options to try with your child. No two children with autism spectrum disorder are alike, which can make identifying and implementing the proper therapy a bit of a trial-and-error process.

While many children with autism will undergo applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, there are a variety of different treatments that can be used in addition to ABA to help your child make real, lasting progress. In this post, we will take you through the basics of occupational therapy, a beneficial piece to intervention for children with Autism, and the importance of sensory integration within occupational therapy for your child.

What is Occupational Therapy for Children with Autism?

One of the most widely-used therapies for children with autism spectrum disorder is occupational therapy. Occupational therapy is designed to provide children with autism the ability to develop and improve the daily skills required to increase their independence. Occupational therapists working with children will focus on self-care skills, sensory integration (motor planning, self-regulation, to name a few subtypes), learning differences, social-emotional/play challenges, developmental delays, gross and fine motor skills (coordination, strength, crossing midline, etc.), and visual perceptual and processing skills.

Many children with autism struggle with the skills mentioned above. Parents in the autism community may know that their children have difficulty processing sensory input and these difficulties make it very challenging to interact with the world around them on a daily basis. Thus impacting most of the skills addressed in occupational therapy sessions.

What is Sensory Integration in Occupational Therapy?

A new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders identifies a link between sensory integration during occupational therapy and an improvement in autistic children’s ability to participate in daily activities and interactions.

Children with autism often struggle with quickly and adequately processing sensory information. As such, these children face the challenge of appropriately integrating this sensory information into their daily lives and, as a result, experience barriers to participating easily in everyday life. This study, involving a randomized, controlled trial, showed that sensory integration during occupational therapy alleviates some of these challenges for children with Autism.

How Sensory Integration Fits into Occupational Therapy

When children with Autism have sensory processing difficulties, it can mean they experience extreme sensitivity to things like loud sounds, bright colors, and quick movements, among other sensory input. These stressors cause children with autism to experience anxiety and unrest, and can result in negative or unwanted behaviors.

So, what does sensory integration and work on sensory processing look like in therapy for children with autism? It depends on whether your child is overresponsive, under-responsive, or craving sensory input. If a child is overresponsive to sensory input they can feel panicked, anxious and refuse to participate in tasks that are too intense. They may often demonstrate an emotional response/meltdown[KF1] that can lead your child to avoid sensory input because it can feel far too overwhelming for them. Those who are under-responsive to sensory input are often quiet and passive, not responding to stimuli that others typically respond to. They often disregard stimulation by not responding. Those that crave sensory input will seek out sensory input (which is a normal function), but then craves sensation that never appears to satisfy the child’s desire. This child can appear to be obsessed with sensory input. Oddly the more sensation a “craving” child gets, the more disorganized the child becomes, thus distinguishing the sensory craving from a normal amount of sensory input desired.

Children with autism can present with differing levels of sensory thresholds. Occupational therapists use standardized assessments and clinical observation/reasoning to determine the right interventions to use with each child. Children that display under responsivity, for example, are very under aroused and lethargic requiring more sensory stimulation in session. While a child that is sensory craving and overresponsive must learn how to tolerate intense sensory stimuli without gaining too much input and become overstimulated. Sensory integration therapy requires a delicate balance of sensory input performed by skilled occupational therapists.

Sensory integration during occupational therapy involves exposing children with sensory processing issues to sensory stimuli in a structured environment. The exposure is also repetitive. This process is believed to help your child’s brain adapt over time, allowing them to process and react to different stimuli and sensations more efficiently.

The Role of Play in Sensory Integration

As with other therapies children with autism spectrum disorder may receive, play is a significant factor in sensory processing work during occupational therapy. The use of play not only introduces your child to a range of stimuli, but it also helps to increase your child’s ability to tune out distractions and sensations that may cause them to experience an adverse reaction.

Your child’s occupational therapist will select a game or activity for your child that is uniquely suited to their needs during the therapy session. During occupational therapy, your child may play in a ball pit, use a sensory gym, or play with toys of various sizes and textures. Your child’s therapist will give them verbal cues to ensure that play requires them to move around, touch things, make noise, and engage all of their senses in a meaningful way.

When done consistently, such sensory processing work helps improve your child’s spatial awareness and normalize their experience with different sensory inputs. It can also help your child with social interactions and emotional regulation.

Social and Emotional Benefits of Sensory Integration

Children with sensory processing difficulties tend to struggle with understanding and interacting with the world on a social level. To guard against unexpected sensory input like a loud laugh, a sudden touch, or a bump, your child may hang back and avoid eye contact. It can be challenging for a child with sensory processing difficulties to know how to respond appropriately during a conversation or how to interpret social cues and body language.

Sensory Integration can help build your child’s ability to self-regulate during social interactions, allowing them to better manage their emotions, behavior, and body movements during situations that might cause them anxiety. Practicing typical social interactions during therapy can help normalize socializing for your child and provide them the tools they need to feel confident when interacting with others.

Your Role as a Parent in Sensory Integration

As the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, you will fulfill many roles in your child’s life, from caretaker, to advocate, to at-home therapist. No matter which therapies your child receives, your active participation is key to their progress. Reinforcing the skills and behaviors your child is learning with their therapist is crucial to their ability to grow.

It is unlikely that you will need to attend every occupational therapy session your child has. However, you will need to participate in some sessions to understand the ‘sensory diet’ your child is receiving and how best to put sensory processing interventions into practice at home. You’ll want to encourage your child when they perform a learned behavior successfully. You should integrate some of the activities your child practices during therapy into their daily routine, to provide consistency and structure to their routine.

The introduction of occupational therapy and sensory integration into your child’s therapy plan will help them improve not only their fine and gross motor skills but also their self-regulation skills. The more reinforcement your child receives at home, the more likely they will be to experience lasting, positive behavioral and emotional change.

To learn more about strategies to support your child and family, visit Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center today!

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