Understanding and Addressing Sensory Integration Dysfunction

Many individuals with autism have challenges with sensory issues that can result in some of the behaviors often associated with autism. Sensory integration (SI) is the neurological process of organizing sensory input from the environment and the body’s sensory systems which allows the body to function effectively within the environment. A disruption of this process results in sensory integration dysfunction.

Those diagnosed with autism often have difficulties in processing not only the obvious five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, but also with other senses such as proprioception (one’s perception of the body’s movement and spatial orientation). Those affected by SI dysfunction may have unusual reactions to touching and being touched (tactile defensiveness), or to movements of the body. Many parents describe their children with autism as being either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sensory input, with some children seemingly impervious to either cold or heat, wanting to wear skimpy clothing outdoors in the dead of winter or a parka in the dog days of summer.

Many environments outside the home can be particularly problematic for individuals with sensory integration issues. Grocery stores, for example, with their bright lighting, vivid product colors, high noise levels, and carts zipping past in different directions may cause “sensory overload” in people with autism. Such problems with sensory integration have been linked to impaired communication skills and negative behaviors as well. Parents report that the majority of their children’s meltdown episodes occur in grocery stores and similar noisy, bright environments.

When parents or teachers begin to suspect problems with sensory integration, the first action taken is usually consulting with an occupational therapist (OT) who then evaluates the child for problems with sensory processing. If occupational therapy is recommended following the evaluation, this needs to be added into the child’s Individualized Education Plan at school.

There are also many ways that parents can contribute to their child’s occupational therapy for SI issues at home with common household items. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Make a “fidgit” toy by filling a balloon with sand. Tightly tie the balloon when full.
  • A weighted vest can be made from an old shirt or vest by filling the pockets and hems with small heavy objects such as curtain weights.
  • To make a weighted pencil, filter through old boxes of nuts and bolts to find two or three that will fit the barrel of a pencil and then glue them on.
  • Blow bubbles with non-toxic bubble solution. Make sure your child actually blows bubbles through the wand vs. merely waving it around.
  • Spray non-toxic shaving cream on a shower wall or bathtub surface and let your child “finger paint” with it.

Do-It-Yourself therapy toys and activities such as these provide a practical alternative to purchasing expensive retail therapy items. Use your imagination and consult with your OT to come up with other activities for your child to expand his sensory therapy—all while having fun in the process!

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