Understanding Sensory Integration Therapy

by Shayna Katzman

Understanding Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory Integration Therapy (SI) is technique used by occupational therapists for children with sensory processing disorder. It works by gradually exposing SPD children to the sensory input that their bodies crave. This has helps their brain filter and organize sensory input.

Sensory Processing Disorder Explained

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) respond to their environment in various ways. Some children are hypersensitive to sensory input, while others can’t seem to get enough stimulation.

Whether your child is a sensory seeker or avoider, the root of the problem is the same. There is a malfunction in one of their senses. This causes the nervous system to send an abnormal number of neural signals to the brain. This interferes with other cerebral processes, creating an excess in brain activity. As a result, the brain becomes overwhelmed.

The brain tries to calm everything down by causing unwanted sensory behaviors. For example, the tactile system lets us know when something is too hot, or when we are in pain. If someone has a tactile dysfunction, they are unable to tolerate physical touch. They may avoid certain food or not like to get their hands dirty.

Children with an oral dysfunction may chew on edible objects. Sensory avoiders may be overly sensitive to certain fabrics or avoid crowds, while sensory seekers are hyperactive. More often than not, these behaviors become so extreme that they interfere with daily life.

Sensory Integration & SPD

Sensory Integration (SI) therapy helps eliminate the need for unwanted sensory seeking behaviors. It works by gradually exposing SPD children to the sensory input that their bodies crave. This gives their brain the chance to calm down and organize incoming input. Over time, they will have the ability to better process their environment.

For example, if your child cannot tolerate water on their body or face, sensory integration will help decrease their touch sensitivity to the point where they can take a shower comfortably. If your child is constantly rough housing with siblings or other children, your goal would be to provide resistive, proprioceptive input that their bodies crave.

What Does Sensory Integration Therapy Look Like?

Sensory integration is an attempt to change the way the brain reacts to sound, light, touch, and movement. The therapy begins with an occupational therapist assessing your child’s specific sensory needs. Your child’s sensory systems maybe are under-reactive or over-reactive to sensory stimuli. The way each system reacts determines the OT’s approach to treatment.

Next, the OT will set up a series of fun activities, but with an extra sensory twist. Your child may have to put together a puzzle, but the puzzle is covered in Jell-O. They may go through a fun obstacle course, but the course provides calming deep pressure. The OT may have your child retrieve toys from a bowl of rice or beans or finger paint on a canvas

Most OTs also have what’s called a sensory room. This room provides a range of stimuli that help engage your child’s senses. There may be special lighting, music, and colors. These rooms give children with SPD the chance to explore and engage in their environment but in a safe space. As they adapt to the stimuli, their confidence and ability grow.

After the OT’s initial assessment, he or she will plan what is called a “sensory diet.” Although it’s called a diet, a sensory diet has nothing to do with food. It is a personalized list of play activities that fulfill the craving for sensory input. These activities can be done in during therapy appointments, or at home under parent supervision.

Some examples of a sensory diet activities include:

• Painting with different types of brushes on different textures
• Face and body painting
• Retrieving objects hidden in rice or beans
Weighted blanket or lap pad
• Yoga poses and stretches
• Walking barefoot on uneven surfaces such as grass or sand
• Jumping on a trampoline
• Swinging on a sensory swing
• Wheelbarrow walking
• Jumping or crashing into pillows
• Balancing on a balance beam, curb, or low wall

The goal of these activities is to stimulate your child but in a fun way. When your child is putting together a puzzle covered in Jell-O, they may be so focused on the puzzle that they forget that it is sticky.

These activities put the brain in “just the right state” to organize sensory input. This balanced feeling not only reduces unwanted sensory seeking behaviors but helps regulate their emotions and improve their attention span.

Remember that your child’s needs may change from day to day, and they should never be forced to participate. For more sensory diet ideas, check out our list of 51 Sensory Diet Activities for Your Sensory Seeking Child.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below!

Shayna Katzman
Shayna Katzman


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