Autism Teaching Methods: Sensory Integration Therapy
All children learn about the world through their senses. A common symptom of Pervasive Developmental Disorder and autism is an unusual response to the senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell and/or movement. According to the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, children with pervasive developmental disorders "may seem underresponsive or overresponsive to sensory stimuli. 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."
Is your child super sensitive to certain noises, bright lights or crowds? Does he look out of the corners of his eyes? Is he afraid of swings or very clumsy? Does he dislike being touched or hugged unless he initiates it? Is he extremely irritated by tags or seams on his clothes? Does he refuse to wear a coat and 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 fairly common among children with autism, PDD and Asperger's Syndrome. Please be aware that sensory problems alone do not mean a child has autism. 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. Sensory integration occurs when our brains organize the information from our senses for our use. For some people, sensory integration does not develop as it should. Sounds and sights may seem stronger, more chaotic and more distracting or disorienting than they do to other people. People with sensory integration dysfunction may have trouble with balance and coordination. Occupational and physical therapists who are also trained in sensory integration techniques offer a range of activities designed to help the child process the information he receives from his senses in a more typical manner.
An occupational therapist (OT) can develop a treatment plan for a child that a parent can also follow at home. The child may need to play with different textures (such as sand, play-dough or shaving cream), to swing, or to sit atop a large ball. The activities should be just challenging enough to help the child respond better to sensory information without being overwhelmed.
"Traditional sensory integrative therapy takes place on a 1:1 basis in a room with suspended equipment for varying movement and sensory experiences," according to Marie DiMatties and Jennifer Sammons at The Council for Exceptional Children. "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."
"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.
An occupational therapist will work with the child to improve his sensory motor skills in addition to fine motor skills (holding a pencil, using scissors) and self-help skills (using buttons, zippers and silverware). A physical therapist can work on gross motor skills such as walking, running, balance and climbing. Also, parents and caregivers can learn sensory-rich activities to do at home with the child. This therapy is almost never offered as a sole treatment for autism or PDD; instead, it may be a piece of a larger program.
Some studies show people benefit from Sensory Integration Therapy while other studies do not show a benefit. 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.
Sensory integration treatment can be expensive if not covered by medical insurance or provided by the school or early intervention office.
Remember, a child's "occupation" is play and learning about his world.
Helpful web sites and books:
The Sensory Processing Disorder Network for general information, a list of professionals, and a list of parent support groups in various areas.
University of Texas Autism Project site describes sensory and motor activities for parents and professionals to try with kids.
A list of Sensory Accommodations for Children with Autism at school and home.
Pocket Full of Therapy and Abilitations for therapy equipment, balls, adapted scissors, weighted vests, etc.
Salt of the Earth for weighted blankets and vests.
Sensory Integration International, The Ayres Clinic, a nonprofit involved in SI education.