What is sensory integration therapy? Does your child need it? Learn how to get help for sensory issues and what two powerful sensory processing disorder treatment options you have for your child.
One of my biggest passions is explaining what sensory processing has to do with children’s confusing, frustrating, or odd behaviors to parents. While lots of kid’s actions can’t be explained by sensory, it’s sometimes the missing link to understanding and helping a child. But, as I explain what sensory really is and why it matters, the inevitable questions always arise: What does it mean if my child has sensory “issues”? Do they need help from somebody? That help that you may be wondering about is called sensory integration therapy and/or giving your child a sensory diet.
That sounds pretty official, maybe even intimidating or overwhelming, but they’re actually pretty incredible if your child needs them. Sensory therapy, and even sensory diets, aren’t necessary or even appropriate for every child with sensory issues. But, for the children they do help, well, it can be life changing. That’s how powerful this “help” can be for a child.
As a parent, I know that what this really all boils down to is getting our kids the help they need, no matter what challenge they might be facing, and when we aren’t sure if they need more help or even what the challenge is (often the case with sensory issues) it can get overwhelming fast. That’s why, in this post, I want to be crystal clear about what exactly sensory integration (SI) therapy is, and that’s just how we’ll get started. But, you’ll also learn if your child needs SI therapy, and how to find it. I’ve covered all the ins and outs of sensory diet in What is a Sensory Diet, but I’ll touch on it here too!
What is Sensory Integration Therapy?
Sensory Integration therapy helps improve a child’s sensory processing through specific play activities that actually work to change the way the brain is wired. Sometimes our kids brains (and ours too) aren’t working very efficiently and the way they perceive different types of sensations like riding a swing or touching something messy is different. Sensory Integration therapy can literally get the brain to perceive the sensations more efficiently, better.
That sounds pretty cool, right? Even cooler is that Sensory Integration therapy looks just like regular old play, and it should. One of the key features of this therapy is that a child be motivated and not forced to complete it. This is just one of the elements that the amazing occupational therapist and creator of Sensory Integration therapy, A. Jean Ayres, discovered in her extensive research.
When I was using SI therapy in a clinic, I was always so worried that parents would be looking in from the observation window and think, “This occupational therapist (OT) isn’t doing anything but letting my child play,” because it isn’t typical therapy. It definitely looks a little different. You won’t find tables and chairs or forced exercises. In the picture above, you see what a typical sensory therapy room looks like (note the headphones are part of another type of therapeutic intervention), thanks to Integrated Learning Service Learning Corner. This girl is participating in a balance and coordination activity, you can read about it here.
Instead, in Sensory Integration therapy you may see your child:
swinging on all sorts of cool swings (read why that’s important here)
sitting in a bin of dry rice or other textures (aka sensory bin play)
Through this play, specially trained occupational therapists will make the activities more challenging over time, as they closely observe that your child’s sensory system is responding differently. In other words, that they are adapting and their sensory processing is improving.
When sensory processing improves, it helps a child focus on the other activities in their life that may be challenging like learning, paying attention, communicating, and even sleeping.
Some doctors and professionals believe that SI therapy needs more rigorous research, and that may be true, but I can tell you that I have personally witnessed amazing results when children with more complex sensory needs actively participate in this therapy with trained OT’s.
Does My Child Need Sensory Integration Therapy?
That’s the million dollar question if your child has sensory issues right? Just the other day I got this question in my inbox…
Since my son turned three we have noticed some odd behaviors. An example is this:
He was the ring bearer in a wedding and during photos the photographer would ask everyone to cheer … when the wedding party would get loud and start cheering, he would literally lose it, full blown screaming in hysterics. There are things such as this that seem to overwhelm him completely. Another example, singing happy birthday to him and the extended family all cheering and saying yay after, and he couldn’t tolerate that either.
He is a pretty mellow kid, not hyperactive etc., but I’m assuming sensory issues can affect every child differently?
I know that this concerned mom is wondering if her child needs sensory therapy, and the truth is I’m not sure. Although his actions certainly seem to be a result of his sensory processing, not all kids with sensory issues necessarily “need” SI therapy. There are a couple of factors that I ask someone every time they are trying to decide if their child needs more help:
1. Does your child’s sensory issues interfere with their life so much that it’s a significant challenge to them?
2. Does your child’s sensory issues affect their life most of the time or all of the time?
3. At a minimum would you like reassurance from a professional, and possible suggestions to help your child at home?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, getting an evaluation is the first step. If you aren’t sure if your child has sensory issues or needs, then hop over to find a list of sensory symptoms and signs. You can also get a printable version of 21 sensory red flags here, and use it as a starting point to figure our what sensory signs you might be missing or overlooking, which is very easy to do.
Of course, know that signs your child has sensory issues doesn’t necessarily mean they have any diagnosis at all. We ALL have sensory preferences and quirks, because each of us is unique and process sensory input differently. Even babies can have sensory issues.
For many children, supporting your child with certain sensory activities or tools (aka a sensory diet), is enough to help them get through their challenges.
For example, in the email I got above, this mother’s son may benefit from having head phones in loud environments. Also, avoiding certain situations, like a loud happy birthday song with family, is a reasonable and understandable request. Children can also learn to tell parents when a loud noise was too much for them and calming activities like a big hug or retreating to a quiet area can be hugely beneficial. All of those examples are just how a sensory diet works. You can find more in 100 Sensory Diet Activities.
I will also tell you that my 5 year old son definitely has some sensory issues or differences, as I like to say, but I know he’s not a good fit for sensory therapy. Even though he often seeks out jumping and climbing, doesn’t like the way some textures feel, and uses a stress ball when he goes to school because of separation anxiety. I know this because his sensory needs don’t interfere with his ability to learn, play with his peers, or sleep. In other words, while we do provide with him activities so he can get his sensory needs met at times, it generally don’t otherwise interfere with his life.
When your child is in occupational therapy for their sensory issues, the OT may use a combination of Sensory Integration therapy and sensory strategies like the ones I just described. OT’s often give parents a sensory diet, but even if your child isn’t in occupational therapy you can learn to design one yourself, you can take steps to start that with this sensory diet template. Some sensory diet activities are based on the principles of Sensory Integration.
Let’s lay this all out really clearly now. If you child has sensory issues, then there are generally three different ways you can help them:
Put a sensory diet in place in your home, which may be some simple supports like headphones (recommended for mild to moderate sensory issues)
Consult with an OT to help develop a sensory diet for your child (recommended for mild to moderate sensory issues)
Schedule an occupational therapy evaluation for Sensory Integration and possible development of a sensory diet (recommended for moderate to involved sensory issues)
Before I wrap up this section, I do want to point out that some children with more complex and frequent sensory issues do receive a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, usually from an OT. Sensory Integration therapy is most often recommended for sensory processing disorder treatment, and can also be amazing for children with Autism and even ADD/ADHD because sensory issues are very common with these diagnoses, too.
Where to Find Sensory Integration Therapy
So here’s the bottom line, if you aren’t sure if your child’s sensory issues need addressed by a professional, I’d recommend getting an evaluation. The OT completing that eval will tell you if your child needs it or not. And, if they don’t, they may give you some helpful sensory ideas and maybe even a sensory diet you can use for them at home.
I will caution you that not all insurances cover these evaluations, but many do. Make sure you call your provider and check first. Most sensory integration therapy takes place at a children’s hospital/facility or an outpatient clinic, both private and satellite based. To find one near you just Google: “sensory integration therapy in (your town/city name).”
When you call to make an appointment make sure you ask about the OT’s qualifications that will be completing the evaluation. Do they have sensory integration training (they should, but not all therapist do)? Be clear that you are looking specifically for sensory integration therapy as pediatric OT’s also provide treatment for fine motor delays, feeding skills, and other developmental challenges. Sensory integration therapists have specialized education and training.
OT’s do support and offer sensory integration in other settings though, as well. Some schools have sensory rooms or school based OT’s carry some equipment with them. Inquire about this at your child’s school if their sensory issues interfere with their learning.
And, if your child is under three, you may qualify for free in home services if you live in the U.S. You can find out how to get set up with early intervention in your state. Keep in mind that the level of sensory integration therapy may be limited though as some special equipment like swings are often used.
Get More Help for Sensory Issues Now
Over the years I’ve talked to 100’s of parents online (and in person) wondering about their child’s quirks and odd or explosive behaviors. As parents start to make the connection that their child’s sensory processing is at the root of those actions, it can be incredibly overwhelming because sensory just isn’t talked about a lot. It can be hard to find answers to the endless questions.
If you’re just beginning the journey into understanding what the heck this sensory thing is and what other sensory signs your child is displaying, you might want to check out my special mini course: Unlock the Sensory Secret.
This mini course is packed with the sensory info you need to know and will take you less than an hour to complete. You’ll find three videos to watch or listen to. A lot of busy parents love this because they listen while cooking dinner or driving in the car. You’ll also get a workbook with all the lessons in a written version for those that prefer to read, plus exercises to apply all that you’ve learned to identifying YOUR child’s sensory issues. I’ll tell you that I hear all the time that once a parent understands their child’s sensory processing, they are immediately able to start helping them better.