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.
Click here for more sensory integration activities to use at home.
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.
That’s why I created a free workshop to reveal some of the insider info that OT’s like myself usually know, but parents don’t! Join me for a free workshop: 3 Expert Secrets to Calm + Focus Your Child with Specialized Sensory Activities
How do i hook a appointment for senory brushing
Hi Sharon! First, call your provider and check to see if your insurance covers it. Then, to find one near you, just Google: “sensory integration therapy in (your town/city name).” Or, talk to your pediatrician about a referral! Another helpful resource is this website. Hope that helps!
We have a grandson we’ve help keep many days of his life since birth. He’s like a son to us because he’s here so much. Into 20 months and now as an early 3 he’s been sensitive to sound. Holds his ears for “loud” or scary things to him. He’s hyper sometimes but not all the time. He loves to play in dishwater or at the sink when brushing his teeth. He plays well at all things. His Papa and I say he’s a good boy because he really is. He does have a hard time with wanting to eat and going to sleep. We probably do all the wrong things. I’ve read quite a bit from your articles today. He’ll sit better at table if he’s watching number or ABC videos. We turn a kid appropriate movie on at bedtime. He is head strong in wanting to do things by himself.
Hi Lori! Thanks for reaching out! It sounds like you have a very sweet grandson that you care for deeply and love very much- you’re both so lucky! Please don’t blame yourself or feel like you’re doing something wrong. The fact that you’re here and researching these things shows that you’re doing your best- which is what matters! It sounds like your grandson could potentially have some sensory sensitivities. If you’re interested in learning more about that, we have a free sensory challenge coming up! You can sign up here!
Thank you so much for making this website and providing this information, it has been very enlightening. I am going to search for an OT right now!
Welcome to Your Kids Table. We’re so glad our site has been helpful to your family! That’s great that you are taking the next step to seek out OT for your little one. We also have some great sensory integration activities that you can do at home.
My son is 7 years old and he has huge sensory issues to clothes. He unfortunately gave up wearing socks and underwear about two years ago. He would just lose it every single time. He would pass up going to the park just so he didnt have to put socks on his feet. Now things have gotten much much worse that I cant even get him to change his clothes most days because he wont wear any thing but two pants and two shirts. I have even bought him same exact clothing just different color and the min he puts the new shirt on he starts twitching and has a mental breakdown even tho its the same shirt just different color as the shirt he just took off. Every morning is a new challenge. I have also notice he will wear the out fit for a few times and then the following week wont wear it at all and has an meltdown. He also loves swimming but I have notice when the place it to crowded (or anywhere we go) he just stops in his tracks and seems to blankly stare like his brain is just going 100 miles per hour. Will he benefit from OT?
Thanks for sharing with us! It does sound like your son would benefit from OT services. You can check out our article on clothing defensiveness, in it we do discuss the brushing protocol which can be really helpful with wearing of clothes. This is taught in person from an OT. They can also help determine any other sensory needs as well and help with any areas of concern. Check out the Clothing Article here!
Hi, my child is 4yo. Generally happy, well and healthy. However he shows no interest in fine motor activities like drawing, painting, crafts, puzzles, threading, beading. He doesnt like crowds and doesnt enjoy the playground. He will not do slides, swings and any climbing elements except for stairs. I have tried waiting out since he was 2-3years but my concern is growing as he grows. He also walks on tipy toes often. Should i be concern?
Thanks for reaching out to us! It sounds like some of the sensory that you are describing is interfering with what he’s able to do in every day tasks. At that point then yes, I would have someone provide you with an evaluation for sensory, so that they can either provide you with some specific suggestions to help him along or they may recommend therapy. It never hurts to get an evaluation with suggestions!
Hope that helps!
My child has problem in clothing she don’t wear bottom wear. Rocking side ways. . What can I do.
Hello!! I’d recommend our free workshop so that you can get an understanding of sensory difference/preferences you can save your seat here Also, an OT would be best to receive an evaluation to review some options for you, there are things such as “sensory brushing” that are usually beneficial, however must be taught correctly in person from an OT! Hope this will be helpful for you!