As a pediatric occupational therapist, this is one question I am asked frequently.
Although people have often heard the term sensory integration therapy, all too often its meaning is unclear. Yet, so many special education teachers, parents, and occupational therapists swear they have seen its positive impact on children, particularly autistic kids.
I thought it would be helpful for me to give my simplified version of sensory integration or "SI". I would like to preface this with a quick disclaimer that SI therapy has nothing to do with ABA or any behavioral approach - as I have been asked this as well. Also, SI is not a desensitization approach whatsoever.
So, what is SI therapy?
Each of us takes in sensory information from the outside world (smell, taste, sight, sounds, touch) as well as sensory input from our bodies which includes vestibular (gravity sensation, awareness of the direction and speed in which we are moving), proprioceptive (input from our muscles and joints which tell us our body position, the force of our movements), and interoception (internal feelings of hunger, thirst, temperature, need to go to the bathroom etc). Now, in order to for us to respond to ALL of this incoming sensory information and act on it successfully, our brains must take in the information and make sense of it (integrate it altogether). Hence the term: Sensory Integration.
Sensory integration treatment starts with understanding exactly where a child may have trouble making sense of information, such as being oversensitive to noises, not liking the feel of messy substances, or craving movement to a very great extent. In fact, an OT uses specific assessments to determine a child's sensory strengths and challenges, which is then referred to as a child's sensory profile.
SI treatment is provided by an OT trained in SI. A session would entail providing children with self-directed and play-based opportunities to explore and adaptively respond to a variety of sensory input. Integrating different senses together in this very motivating and meaningful way allows a child to make sense of less well-integrated senses.
So, in an OT session for a child who is sensitive to the feeling of different textures, he may have the opportunity to reach for a football (rough texture), a squishy ball, or a soft stuffed animal, while swinging slowly on a swing, all with the goal of throwing the chosen item toward a target. Through the experience of touching different textures (tactile/touch system) while simultaneously stimulating the vestibular system through swinging, and addressing the proprioceptive system as well (reaching, shifting his trunk, and throwing with his arm) the child is integrating at least three sensory systems. In this example, the child is taking in quite varied and unique sensory input, but doing so in a calm, fun, and self-directed manner.
As you can see, this is not a behavioral approach or in any way a type of ABA because in sensory integration the child chooses his activities (in the multi-sensory gym) and then participates within his or her comfort level. What SI does is allow a child to experience (in a safe and self-guided play session) and enjoy a slowed-down, non-stressful experience of many varied sensory inputs which are then integrated together.
Over time, a child becomes more "experienced" with taking in and making sense of novel or less familiar sensory input. Then, gradually, a child is better able to integrate a variety of sensory inout in the real world.
I hope this is helpful! Please reach out to me through my website at Kids Master Skills. Sign up there to watch my FREE Masterclass called HELPING KIDS MASTER CALM: How to support sensory sensitive autistic children - which is live now! And please comment below with your experiences with sensory integration!