Understanding Sensory Integration Issues

Headshot of Elizabeth Haas, OTR/LBy Elizabeth Haas

This is the first post in a three-part series on school-based occupational therapy for sensory integration issues.

When I first started providing online occupational therapy (OT) services to students online several years ago, I thought it might be difficult to work on certain types of goals in an online environment, particularly those related to a student’s sensory integration needs. In the second and third posts in this series, I will share a case study about a student who opened my eyes in many regards, as well some specific ways occupational therapists work with students, families, and support teams on sensory integration. To kick off the series, however, let’s discuss what is meant by the term sensory integration.

Simply put, sensory integration refers to the ability to use one’s senses — vision, movement, smell, touch, and others ― to take in information about the world around us and to use that information to make an appropriate behavioral response. Many students, especially those on the autism spectrum, either do not effectively take in sensory information, or, if they do take in the information, their brain cannot successfully process it. In either case, those students cannot make an appropriate behavioral response as a result.

To help illustrate this, imagine placing your hand on a hot burner on a stove. You would feel the heat, sense the danger burning yourself, and remove your hand. Likely all of this would occur in milliseconds. If you had a sensory integration issue, however, you might not even feel that the burner is hot, or you might know that it is hot, but your brain will not tell you to remove your hand from the stove and you will burn yourself.

This is a very basic example, but inappropriate behaviors due to sensory issues come in all shapes and sizes. You may observe students with inappropriate behavioral responses related to sensory integration needs to be spinning, falling out of their seats, chewing and smelling non-edible items, and crashing into walls. Students with sensory issues do not necessarily behave this way intentionally; but rather the behaviors stem from their very real need to receive a certain amount of sensory input to feel normal or calm.

As occupational therapists, our goal is not to extinguish inappropriate behaviors. Instead, we work toward teaching a student to substitute inappropriate behaviors with socially appropriate ones that meet the same sensory need.

Elizabeth Haas, MS, OTR/L is a Clinical Practice Director, Occupational Therapy for PresenceLearning