Sensory integration therapy is designed to help kids with sensory processing issues. This type of therapy aims to adjust the way children respond to physical sensations. But some experts caution that the research on its effectiveness is inconclusive.
What Sensory Integration Therapy Is
Sensory integration therapy is based on the idea that some kids experience “sensory overload” and are oversensitive to certain types of stimulation. When children have sensory overload, their brains have trouble processing or filtering many sensations at once. Meanwhile, other kids are undersensitive to some kinds of stimulation. Kids who are undersensitive don’t process sensory messages quickly or efficiently. These children may seem disconnected from their environment. In either case, kids with sensory integration issues struggle to organize, understand and respond to the information they take in from their surroundings.
Sensory integration therapy exposes children to sensory stimulation in a structured, repetitive manner. The theory behind this treatment approach is that, over time, the brain will adapt and allow them to process and react to sensations more efficiently. Supporters of this therapy say it can help kids learn and pay attention more efficiently too.
Who Sensory Integration Therapy Is For
Sensory integration therapy is designed primarily for children with sensory processing issues. This may include kids who have ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and dyspraxia. It might also be used with young children who show signs of developmental delay.
How Sensory Integration Therapy Works
Sensory integration therapy can be fun for kids because it resembles playtime. It usually takes place in a specially designed setting where kids are encouraged to play with balls of different sizes, textures and weights. Therapy sessions often involve playing with clay and other materials. Children may also be asked to bounce, swing or spin on special equipment.
The therapist gradually makes these activities more challenging and complex. The idea is that through repetition, a child’s nervous system will respond in a more “organized” way to sensations and movement. Sometimes sensory integration therapy is paired with balance treatments or movement therapy. This type of therapy may involve going through an obstacle course, throwing a ball and standing on a balance board.
Who Provides Sensory Integration Therapy
Sensory integration therapy is usually provided by occupational therapists (OT). They must have a master’s degree in occupational therapy and be licensed by the state to practice.
Not all OTs have training in sensory integration therapy. If you’d like your child to try it, look for an OT who is certified in sensory integration. An OT who has this kind of training can plan strategies to help a child with sensory issues and use those strategies in therapy sessions.
What to Watch Out For
Not all experts think sensory integration therapy can help kids with learning and attention issues. And many experts are skeptical about the therapy leading to long-term changes in a child. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that sensory integration therapy is OK to include as part of a larger treatment plan for developmental and behavior issues. But the organization cautions that research on the therapy’s effectiveness is limited and inconclusive.
Some doctors worry that parents who focus on a young child’s sensory issues may postpone getting a more complete assessment of their child’s needs. This can delay the diagnosis of more complex conditions such as autism. A child with autism may benefit from sensory integration therapy but will likely need other primary treatments as well.
The Bottom Line
There’s no harm in having your child try sensory integration therapy. But be aware that there may be more effective ways to help your child with sensory issues.