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Sensory Integration Therapy: Enhancing Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Updated: Jan 27


SUMMARY: One of the major factors for developmental delay in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is an impaired capacity for sensory processing. Sensory integration therapy addresses sensory processing challenges in children with autism by providing controlled sensory experiences. Through tailored activities and exercises, such as movement, tactile stimulation, and deep pressure, the therapy aims to improve sensory processing skills, self-regulation, and participation in daily activities. Collaboration among parents, therapists, and professionals is vital to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. SIT is just one aspect of a holistic approach, and its effectiveness varies for each individual. It plays a role in promoting adaptive responses to sensory input and enhancing the overall well-being of children with autism.

If you are a regular social media user or an avid reader in general, you must have come across the terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” at some point to describe individuals. Let’s dive deeper into their meaning.


Neurotypical is a term that is generally used to describe a person who does not express neurologically atypical thoughts, mannerisms or behaviours. Such a person thinks, perceives and behaves in ways that are considered “normal” by society.


In contrast, neurodivergence represents people who have an altered perception of their surroundings and general experiences primarily by virtue of a difference in brain development. This term helps us embrace the fact that there are varied ways of perceiving, comprehending and reacting and is, therefore, a lot more inclusive and preferable description.


Autism Spectrum Disorder is one such condition that falls under the umbrella of neurodivergence. As the name suggests, it varies considerably over a spectrum. The abilities of people with ASD vary greatly. On one hand, we have high-functioning individuals like those with Asperger’s syndrome while on the other we come across children with such severe sensory deficits that even basic communication becomes a huge challenge.

Children with autism typically have trouble with imagination or rigidity of thoughts, communication and interaction.


A lot of interactional and behavioural issues stem from the fact that children with autism are unable to process sensory information like children with normal brain development.

Infants and toddlers who have trouble processing sensory information are unable to adapt to their environments or exercise self-control. When they are young, babies can be fussy, cry a lot, be challenging to console or struggle with routine changes. Alternately, they could sleep a lot and spend little time awake, appear unaware of sounds others hear, or experience delays in motor development. These newborns' sensory processing deficiencies may worsen as they get older and affect how they engage in activities like getting dressed, taking care of themselves, and eating.


For example, A is a 7 y/o child with a self-injurious habit of biting his wrists. This indicates that he may be seeking sensory input but is unable to perceive it well enough. This explains why he tends to injure himself frequently and voluntarily.



CATEGORIES OF SENSORY PROCESSING ISSUES:

Four basic categories of sensory processing issues in early childhood were described by Dunn:

⦁ Low registration: These kids pay less attention to their surroundings. Despite having a more laid-back demeanour than other kids, they could exhibit behaviours that hinder their ability to learn, like failing to answer when their name is called and finding it more challenging to complete activities.

⦁ Sensation seeking: These kids need more sensory stimulation than normal kids and will look for highly stimulating events. Because they are often distracted by sensory stimuli and may find ways to give themselves sensory input, such as through constant movement or humming, they may struggle to finish activities.

⦁ Sensation avoiding: These kids have a propensity to pay closer attention to their surroundings than other kids do, making them susceptible to sensory overload. They prefer peaceful locations, are frequently alone, and isolate themselves from other people.

⦁ Sensory sensitivity: These kids are more sensitive to sensation than other kids, and they often get agitated and distracted by sensory experiences that other kids would not even notice.


SENSORY INTEGRATION THERAPY:

To address sensory integration challenges in autistic children, a therapeutic approach called sensory integration therapy or sensory-based interventions is often used. The main goal of this therapy is to help children effectively process and integrate sensory information so they can participate in daily activities and engage more successfully with their environment.

Sensory integration therapy typically involves working with an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration techniques. The therapist creates a tailored treatment plan based on the child's specific sensory needs after assessing the child through various assessment tools and batteries.


The therapy may include a variety of activities and exercises designed to provide sensory input and help the child gradually adapt and respond appropriately to sensory stimuli.

These activities may involve swinging, spinning, jumping on a trampoline, playing with tactile materials, engaging in deep-pressure activities, or using weighted blankets or vests to provide calming input. The therapist may also incorporate visual cues, auditory stimuli, and activities that promote body awareness and coordination.


It is important to identify the category of sensory processing issues as improper stimuli may also prove to be harmful to the child’s development and cause him/her to be more agitated than before.


By providing controlled and structured sensory experiences, sensory integration therapy aims to help children with autism develop more effective sensory processing skills. Over time, the therapy can improve their ability to regulate their responses to sensory input, enhance their attention and focus, reduce sensory sensitivities, and promote overall self-regulation.


With children and their families, therapists take a holistic approach that prioritises functional, developmentally appropriate methods. By taking into account sensory, motor (both gross and fine), social, and cognitive components of performance, the therapist can create programmes that fit into the family's daily routine and emphasise play as the child's main activity.


FOOTNOTE:

It's important to note that sensory integration therapy is just one approach among many interventions available for autistic children. The effectiveness of sensory integration therapy varies from individual to individual, and it should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the unique needs of each child. Collaboration between parents, therapists, educators, and other professionals is crucial in developing and implementing a holistic approach to support sensory integration in autistic children.




References:

  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent

  2. https://www.college.police.uk/support-forces/diversity-and-inclusion/neurodiversity-glossary-terms#:~:text=and%20dyslexic%20people.-,Neurotypical,is%20the%20opposite%20of%20neurodivergent.

  3. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-neurotypical-260047

  4. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

  5. https://www.asdhelpinghands.org.uk/supporting-you/information/autism/the-triad-of-impairment/

  6. Occupational therapy for children- Jane Case-Smith 6th edition


Written by: Dr. Uma Arun Unni

Edited by: Dr. Manognya Chekragari

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