What Is Sensory Integration Training?

Sensory integration training offers therapists the opportunity to become qualified SI Practitioners. Therapists who undertake this training gain postgraduate university accredited qualifications. There are also short online CPD courses for health and education professionals. Introductory-level online courses are useful for parents and carers, teachers, SEN staff, social workers, and adoption workers.

The 8 Sensory Systems

We receive sensory information from our senses, which include these 8 sensory systems:

  • The Visual System (Sight)

    Located in the eye, the visual system handles sight. This is where photoreceptors detect light and send nerve impulses to the brain via the optic nerve. This causes the ability to perceive visible light.

  • The Auditory System (Sound)

    Based in the ear, the auditory system handles the hearing of sounds. It functions by receiving and detecting vibrations through tiny hair cells. These cells output electrical systems which travel to the brain.

  • The Olfactory System (Smell)

    The olfactory system handles the sense of smell. Receptors in the nose detect chemicals floating in the air, then send the information to the brain.

  • The Gustatory System (Taste)

    We taste things using the sensory organs on the tongue, or tastebuds and these relay different tastes to the brain. There are five basic tastes which tastebuds perceive. These are salty, sour, umami, bitter and sweet.

  • The Tactile System (Touch)

    The skin is the home of the tactile system. Here, neural receptors sense levels of pressure, temperature, and pain. These impulses are to the brain and the central nervous system through the peripheral nervous system.

  • The Proprioception System (Body Position)

    The proprioception system is our sense of body awareness. Messages from muscles, joint capsules and tendons provide information about where our body is in space. It also detects how it is moving (direction, speed and force) without using vision.

  • The Vestibular System (Movement)

    The vestibular system is our balance and movement sense. It tells us where our body is in relation to gravity, where it is moving and how fast. The movement receptors are in the inner ear and are important for body posture, muscle tone, and bilateral integration.

  • Interoception (Internal State)

    Interoception is the sense of the physiological condition of the body. These signals tell us (consciously or unconsciously) about our needs. This includes hunger, thirst, needing the toilet, temperature, and heart rate. Studies show that sensitivity to interoceptive signals impact our capacity to regulate emotions.

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What are Sensory Integration or Sensory Processing Difficulties?

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.

1. Sensory Modulation Problems

Sensory modulation problems happen when our brain over- or under-responds to sensory information. For example, if someone over responds to touch they may be very aware of the label in the back of their clothes. If someone is under-responsive to touch, they may not notice someone tapping them on the shoulder. People can be over-responsive or under-responsive in all the different senses. They can be over responsive in one sense and under responsive in another. Likewise, some people can be over responsive and under responsive within the same sense. Responsiveness can be dependent on a situation. For example, a stressful situation can make us more and sometimes less aware of sensation.

2. Sensory discrimination and perceptual problems

These problems are a result of problems with our vestibular sense. It can result in poor balance and difficulties with coordinating two sides of the body. Balance and coordination problems could be a result of a range of different problems. A qualified SI practitioner can identify if difficulties are a result of problems with the vestibular system.

3. Vestibular bilateral functional problems

These problems are a result of problems with our vestibular sense. It can result in poor balance and difficulties with coordinating two sides of the body. Balance and coordination problems could be a result of a range of different problems. A qualified SI practitioner can identify if difficulties are a result of problems with the vestibular system.

4. Praxis problems

Praxis is the medical term for how our brain plans for and carries out movements we have not done before. For children this could be learning to jump; for adults, it may be learning to drive or use chopsticks. When sensory information is not processed it can make new movements very difficult. This is because a child doesn't have the ability to make sense of different sensory information. So, they struggle to work out where their body is and how much force, speed, and direction they need to do a new movement. We call difficulties with praxis dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder.

How Common are Sensory Integration Problems?

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.

How does Sensory Integration Training Help?

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.

Qualify as an SI Practitioner or Advanced Practitioner

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.

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  • *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