Sensory integration therapy attempts to treat sensory processing disorder which is common in children with autism. Children with sensory processing disorder experience problems with their sense of touch, smell, hearing, taste and/or sight. Besides them, there might be difficulties in movement, coordination and sensing where one's body is in a given space. They may be extra sensitive to certain textures, clothing fabric, sounds, smells and tastes. A child with an autism spectrum disorder may feel very little pain or actually enjoy sensations that other children would dislike: strong smells, intense cold or unpleasant tastes.
The sense of touch varies widely among children experiencing sensory processing disorder. When children enjoy the feel of sticky textures, one may use materials such as glue, play dough, stickers, rubber toys and sticky tape. Other materials that can be useful for tactile sensation include water, rice, beans and sand. On the other hand, children who are very sensitive to touch may go through a brushing program that attempts to desensitize children to touch by systematically brushing their body at regular intervals throughout the day. Autistic children often enjoy a sense of firm overall pressure. This can be given by wrapping them up in blankets, being squashed by pillows and firm hugs. These can form a basis for play, interaction and showing affection. Experiences that may be claustrophobic for other children may be enjoyed, such as being squashed between mattresses, and making tunnels or tents from blankets over furniture.
One may become aware of a child's response to the smell of substances, and may experiment with putting different fragrances in play dough or rice. If a child actively likes strong odors, specific toys with this feature can be used in therapy.
It can be focused on by experimenting with talking toys, games on computers, musical instruments, squeaky toys and all sorts of music. Clapping together, rhymes, repeating phrases and tongue twisters are useful activities. Some children on the autism spectrum respond to music, but not voices, in which case a melodic or “singsong” voice may be preferred. You may try different tones of voice, pitches, and gauge a child's reaction.
It helps children to locate their bodies in space. Autistic children often have poor proprioception and often need help to develop their coordination. Therapy may include playing with weights, bouncing on a large ball, skipping or pushing heavy objects.
The Vestibular system is located in the inner ear. It responds to movement and gravity and is therefore involved with our sense of balance, coordination and eye movements. Therapy can include hanging upside down, rocking chairs, swings, spinning, rolling, cartwheels and dancing. All these activities involve the head moving in different ways that stimulate the vestibular system. One should observe the child carefully to be sure the movement is not over stimulating. Back and forth movement is typically less stimulating than side-to-side movement. The most stimulating movement tends to be rotational (spinning) and should be used carefully. Ideally, therapy will provide a variety of these movements. A rocking motion will usually calm a child while vigorous motions like spinning will stimulate them. Merry-go-rounds, being tossed onto cushions or jumping trampolines can be favorite activities with some children.
Skills such as tying shoelaces or riding a bike can be difficult as they involve sequences of movements. Therapy to help in this area may use mazes, obstacle courses, constructional toys and building blocks. Difficulty with using both sides of the body together can occur in some cases of sensory processing disorder. A therapist may encourage a child with crawling, skipping, playing musical instruments, playing catch and bouncing balls with both hands to help with bilateral integration.
Hand and eye coordination can be improved with activities such as hitting a ball with a bat, popping bubbles, and throwing and catching balls, beanbags and balloons.
Source: Information Booklet on Autism