Autism Teaching Methods: Sensory Integration Therapy
All children learn about the world through their senses. Children with autism spectrum disorders, however, often have unusual responses to the senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell and/or movement. These responses can interfere with learning and affect behavior.
Children with autism spectrum disorders may over-react or under-react to things they hear, see, taste and touch. "Thus, they may be suspected of being deaf or visually impaired. It is common for such young children to be referred for hearing and vision tests. Some children avoid gentle physical contact, yet react with pleasure to rough-and-tumble games. Some children carry food preferences to extremes, with favored foods eaten to excess. Some children limit their diet to a small selection," according to the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities.
Is your child extremely sensitive to certain noises, bright lights, food textures or crowds? Does he look out of the corners of his eyes? Is he afraid of swings or very clumsy? Does she spin for hours without feeling dizzy? Does he dislike being touched or hugged unless he initiates it? Is he unusually irritated by tags or seams on his clothes? Does he refuse to wear a coat and make a huge fuss over socks and shoes? Does he have an unusually high or low tolerance for pain?
These may be signs of Sensory Processing Disorder, also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Sensory processing problems are common among children with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. However, sensory problems alone do not mean a child has an autism spectrum disorder. Some children have a sensory processing disorder only, but no other diagnosis.
The theory of sensory integration was developed by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres Ph.D. in the 1970s. Sensory integration occurs when our brains organize the information from our senses for our use.
For some people, sensory integration does not develop properly. Sounds, sights and movement may seem more chaotic, more distracting and stronger than they do to others. Balance and coordination may also be a problem.
Because of these sensory problems, a child may avoid the playful, sensory-rich experiences that are natural building blocks to learning and developing relationships, according to occupational therapist Tara Delaney in 101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Aspergers and Sensory Processing Disorders.
Occupational therapists (OTs) who are trained in sensory techniques will engage a child in playful activities designed to help him process the information he receives from his senses in a more typical manner.
The therapist may work with the child in a room with platform swings, large exercise balls and other equipment. "The goal of therapy is not to teach skills, but to follow the child's lead and artfully select and modify activities according to the child's responses," according to Marie DiMatties and Jennifer Sammons at The Council for Exceptional Children.
The therapist can develop a treatment plan for a child that a parent can also follow at home, often using common household items. The child may need to play with different textures (such as sand, play-dough or shaving cream), to swing, to chew on a special chewy tube, or to sit atop a large sensory ball. The activities should be just challenging enough to help the child respond better to sensory information without feeling overwhelmed.
Activities to improve focus and to calm the child can be built into his day. "The How Does Your Engine Run? Program is a step-by-step method that teaches children simple changes to their daily routine, such as a brisk walk, jumping on a trampoline before doing their homework, and listening to calming music, that will help them self-regulate or keep their engine running 'just right.' Through the use of charts, worksheets, and activities, the child is guided in improving awareness and using self-regulation strategies," according to DiMatties and Sammons.
Children with autism, PDD and Asperger's Syndrome may receive free physical and occupational therapy at their public schools or through their state's early intervention program. Parents can ask their school system to evaluate their child to see if he qualifies for these services, including sensory integration activities.
At school, an occupational therapist also may work with the child to improve his fine motor skills (holding a pencil, using scissors, handwriting) and self-help skills (using buttons, zippers and silverware). A physical therapist may work on gross motor skills such as running, balance and climbing.
Sensory Integration Therapy is almost never offered as a sole treatment for autism spectrum disorder; instead, it may be a piece of a larger program.
Some studies show a benefit from Sensory Integration Therapy while other studies do not. A small study released in 2008 by Temple University researchers found that children with autism spectrum disorders who had sensory integration therapy had fewer "autistic mannerisms" than children who received fine motor therapy alone.
Sensory integration treatment can be expensive if not covered by medical insurance or provided by the school or early intervention office. Some insurance plans will not cover sensory integration therapy, but they may cover therapy that focuses on motor skills.
Remember, a child's "occupation" is play and learning about the world.
The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowitz. This popular book explains sensory integration dysfunction in children who may or may not have another diagnosis. Includes ideas for sensory experiences you can provide at home, using inexpensive household items, to help your child learn to regulate his sensory system. Other books by Kranowitz:
- The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder shows you how to create sensory activities such as a Shaving Cream Car Wash, No-Mess Messy Play and Paper Bag Kick Ball.
Dr. Lucy Miller, an occupational therapist, is known for her research into Sensory Processing Disorder. See her book, Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder.
Understanding Your Child's Sensory Signals: A Practical Daily Use Handbook for Parents and Teachers. Is it purely behavior or a sensory cue? Occupational therapist Angie Voss helps you understand what might be driving your child's or student's behavior.
Early Intervention Games: Fun, Joyful Ways to Develop Social and Motor Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum or Sensory Processing Disorders by Barbara Sher, an occupational therapist. Includes many games parents and teachers can play with kids to teach social skills, concepts like beginning and end, hand-eye coordination and language skills.
Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues. Occupational therapist Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske give practical information on working with your child, getting free services from his school, using a therapist and more.
Where to Find Sensory and Occupational Therapy Products
- National Autism Resources: weighted blankets, oral motor and chewy tubes, products to help kids who fidget, handwriting tools and sensory furniture.
- Model Me Movement: Balance, Core & Calming: video of movement activities developed by occupational therapist Dr. Fabiane Curro.
- Materials for autism from Natural Learning Concepts
- The Sensory University (oral motor chews, toys. weighted blanket)