Problems with sensory processing are common in autism, and some people on the spectrum have an additional diagnosis of sensory processing disorder (SPD). According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, SPD affects at least 1 in 20 children. A number of experts agree that a large percentage of those children with SPD also have autism.
Sensory Processing and Autism
Sensory integration therapy for autism addresses the hypersensitivity, or hypo sensitivity, people with autism experience. People with autism can benefit from sensory integration therapy if they are either not sensitive enough to external stimuli, or too sensitive to stimuli such as noises, touch, or light.
As the name suggests, these disorders stem from dysfunctional processing of stimuli. Unlike people who are deaf or blind, people with sensory processing disorders do sense the information correctly, but the brain does not process it properly. As a result, the person will perceive stimuli either too intensely, or not sufficiently.
This explains why people with autism, for example, may not be able to stand the sound of a dishwasher or traffic. The other extreme also exists, where stimuli cannot be perceived sufficiently. If this is the case the person is hypo sensitive, and in some extreme cases it could mean he is only aware of his body when receiving very large stimuli. This can translate to actually injuring himself to obtain this self-awareness. People with autism can be hypersensitive, hypo sensitive, or not show any sensitivity problems.
Goals of Sensory Integration Therapy for Autism
Sensory integration therapy for autism attempts to address these sensory processing problems. They are based on a neurological dysfunction, which causes the following senses to process information incorrectly:
- Sense of movement (vestibular system)
- Positional sense (proprioception)
Although people with autism sense stimuli from the environment, the brain analyzes the sensory input in an unusual way. This can cause distress and undesirable behavior, such as throwing a tantrum or covering the ears every time a car drives by.
If you know someone who is struggling with sensory processing problems, this form of therapy might be an option. It is the therapy most commonly used for these disorders. The ideal result of the therapy is to change how the person reacts to the stimuli that are either over- or under perceived. In the process of regulating this response, the therapy also helps decrease anxiety and improves focus.
How Sensory Integration Therapy Works
Sensory integration therapy is offered by specially trained occupational therapists. This therapy only addresses the sensory challenges people with autism face, but it does not replace other learning therapies such as multi sensory approaches and applied behavioral analysis. It is a therapy that can be performed in conjunction with learning therapies. Unlike the therapies that address learning and behavioral problems, sensory integration therapy is much less time consuming.
To address hypersensitivity or hypo sensitivity in people with autism, a therapist will create a variety of sensory activities that cater directly to the stimuli that are most problematic. It is rare that people with autism will have problems with all five senses. So the therapist may brush the patient's skin with differently textured fabrics or toys if the patient is hyper (or hypo) sensitive to touch. The desensitization happens over time, as the person gets used to the different sensations from the objects used during therapy. At first, a therapist might try using a very soft cloth or stuffed animal, eventually moving up to coarser textures or different objects.
Considering that at this time mostly children are treated with sensory integration therapy, the activities are designed to be enjoyable and game-like. By making the therapy into a game, a child with autism will not feel as easily overwhelmed.
Several different sensory therapies exist to address the wide range of problems people with autism have. As with many types of therapy, what works for one individual does not work for another. As a result, sensory integration therapy is always personalized, and performed on a one-on-one basis. Whichever the technique used, it always aims to address a particular sensory processing problem. For example, some children become less hyperactive when spun in a chair during therapy. Others benefit more from swinging, or vibration therapy. The technique that is right for you, or your child, is very personal. For this reason, it is extremely important to find a therapist who is well training and fully up to date on the latest techniques.
Results May Vary
Although sensory integration therapy is widely used and recognized, sensory processing disorder is not an official diagnosis. People with autism do show unusual sensory processing, but there is still a lot of disagreement in the scientific community about this component of autism and its treatments.
There are a number of studies that have proven sensory integration therapy to be successful, but some are also disputed. Even more anecdotal evidence exists that this form of therapy is beneficial for people with autism. With a qualified professional it is certainly worth trying. If it works for you, the payoffs are high, and there is no risk to the therapy itself.