What is sensory integration therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a concept that began in the 1970s. The idea is to expose kids with sensory challenges to the sensations that upset them. Now, it’s part of a bigger approach to treatment.

Kids need to manage the information that comes in through their senses — things like noise, lights, smells, and touch. They also need to manage information about how to position and move their body. Some people use the term sensory integration to describe this process.

The term goes back to the 1970s. When kids have sensory challenges, people may still use it to describe the treatment. They might refer to sensory integration therapy and the concept that exposing kids to the sensations that upset them will make their brain better able to process them.

Kids work with occupational therapists (OTs) on these challenges. So the treatment they get is called occupational therapy.

How OTs help with sensory challenges 

School OTs work with kids during the school day, usually as part of an IEP. The treatment is free. They also work with a child’s family, teachers, and other therapists. (OTs can work in private practice or another setting.)

They start by finding out which sensory areas are the most difficult for the child. Then they come up with a plan to improve how the child processes and responds to input in those areas.

The goal is to help the brain make better connections between different sensory inputs. This can lead to:

  • Better impulse control

  • Stronger motor skills

  • Less sensitivity or overreactions to sensory experiences like touch, smells, and sounds

Sensory diets: How they can help

The strategy of exposing kids to sensory input hasn’t disappeared. But many OTs now use it as part of a larger treatment approach called a sensory diet.

This type of therapy has nothing to do with food. Sensory diets are a series of play-based activities that kids do throughout the day. The activities are designed to meet a child’s needs. Most often, they’re physical.

Take a child who has trouble sitting in a chair during school. The OT might suggest some physical exercises for the child to do during the day. These might be jumping jacks, push-ups, or running in place.

Through these activities, the child learns to adjust to and manage sensory feelings over time. (The OT might also recommend a special chair.)

Some experts think there isn’t enough research to know whether this type of treatment is effective. That’s why talking with doctors and therapists about other options is key, too.

Learn about sensory overload. And explore strategies you can try at home.

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