What happens if the signals coming from our senses are too weak? Or too strong? If our brain over or under reacts to the signals? What about if the brain can’t make sense of those signals?
These are examples of sensory integration difficulties. Often, signs of these difficulties are evident in their behaviour. Some individuals may experience the sensory inputs as overwhelming and upsetting. This is what leads to a 'sensory overload’. Others may crave ever more sensory input. Individuals may be over-sensitive to sensory input, under-sensitive, or both. Sensory integration difficulties can contribute to challenges with motor skills, and with more complex planning and organisation tasks.
It’s common for all of us to feel under or over-sensitive to sensory inputs. For example, music or bright lights may feel too much if you have a headache. You can feel uncoordinated or find it hard to focus when tired. But these feelings are temporary and wouldn't affect you in the long term. Sensory processing difficulties have a big impact on everyday life and learning. It's possible to improve someone's daily functioning with professional advice and appropriate therapy.
Some may have difficulty processing input from one sense (e.g., visual processing). Others may have trouble integrating inputs from more than one sensory system. Note that sensory integration difficulties are different from sensory impairments (e.g., hearing loss). Sometimes the two result in similar behaviours. Someone with perfect hearing can struggle to follow conversations if they have difficulty processing auditory signals.
Our understanding of sensory integration came from studies in the late 60s and 70s by Dr A Jean Ayres. Ayres was an occupational therapist and psychologist in the US with an understanding of neuroscience. Sensory Integration Therapy is a specific evidence-based SI therapy practiced by trained practitioners.
Sensory integration difficulties can co-occur with other diagnoses. These include autism, ADHD, OCD, genetic syndromes and learning disabilities. A 2009 study* found that as many as 1 in every 6 children has sensory processing issues that make it hard to learn and function in school.
Amongst autistic students and SEN students, the prevalence of sensory integration or processing difficulties is even higher. Studies have found that **66% of autistic children show definite differences in sensory behaviours. 32% of children with special education needs (not autistic) show different sensory behaviours. A 2020 paper*** found that sensory processing difficulties predicted executive and cognitive dysfunctions in inhibitory control in autistic children. This also included auditory sustained attention and short-term verbal memory in autistic children within a school context.
We can improve the daily experience of people with sensory integration difficulties. However, people do not grow out of such difficulties.
For many people, small adjustments to their environment can make a huge difference. This can be as simple as the way they can move at school or at work.
We offer a range of sensory integration courses for parents, teachers, and other professionals. These courses help you understand more about sensory integration difficulties. These courses help make work, play, and learning accessible to those with sensory integration difficulties.
Sensory Integration Therapy is a plan of intervention devised by a qualified SI Practitioner. This plan aims to improve the integration of sensory information in children and adults. The therapy is highly individualised to the sensory profile of the child or adult. Structured activities with specific sensory input encourage the brain and body to efficiently process and react to sensations.
Sensory integration therapy should only be carried out by a qualified SI Practitioner. This is a qualified occupational therapist, speech and language therapist or physiotherapist. This therapist will have undertaken rigorous postgraduate sensory integration training.
Qualified SI practitioners have a detailed understanding of the neuroscience underpinning sensory integration. They have expertise in assessing and intervening for people with sensory integration problems.
SI therapy (or SI interventions) include structured exposure to several elements. This includes:
- Sensory input
- Movement therapy
- Balance treatments
- Customised physical activities
- Accommodations such as changes to the environment or routine
An SI Practitioner may work with the client, their family, carers, school, other allied health professionals or employer. Together they create a ‘sensory diet’ for that specific client. A sensory diet is a recommended suite of activities and accommodations. These activities and accommodations can be carried where needed. This can be at work, at home, or at school. The goal is to help give that individual the sensory input they need.
You can search the SI Practitioners' Register for therapists with sensory integration qualifications. These therapists have qualified via SIE’s UK-university-accredited MSc in SI pathway.
We make adding sensory integration therapy skills and knowledge to your practice easy and achievable. Sensory Integration Education offers SI Practitioner and Advanced Practitioner Training for Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists and Physiotherapists. Study online and complete mentored clinical practice hours to achieve a Postgraduate Certificate in Sensory Integration.
This award is accredited by the UK’s award-winning Sheffield Hallam University. You will also earn Sensory Integration Practitioner status upon completion. Once qualified, you can progress to a Postgraduate Diploma in SI and Advanced Practitioner status. It's even possible to move into an MSc in Sensory Integration
You can access our interactive, high-quality teaching online, from anywhere in the world. Study at times that are convenient to you. Our Advanced Practitioner eMentors will support you at each step of the way. You will enjoy the benefits of the university’s full student support and library resources from Day 1.
If you have any questions about our sensory integration training, please contact us and one of our friendly support team will get back to you.
*Ben-Sasson A, Carter AS, Briggs-Gowan MJ. Sensory over-responsivity in elementary school: prevalence and social-emotional correlates. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2009 Jul;37(5):705-16. doi: 10.1007/s10802-008-9295-8. PMID: 19153827; PMCID: PMC5972374.
** Green D, Chandler S, Charman T, Simonoff E, Baird G. Brief Report: DSM-5 Sensory Behaviours in Children With and Without an Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2016 Nov;46(11):3597-3606. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-2881-7. PMID: 27475418.
*** Gemma Pastor-Cerezuela, Maria-Inmaculada Fernández-Andrés, Pilar Sanz-Cervera, Diana Marín-Suelves, The impact of sensory processing on executive and cognitive functions in children with autism spectrum disorder in the school context, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 96, 2020, 103540, ISSN 0891-4222, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2019.103540