Sensory Integration Therapy and Autism

This technique can be effective for modifying behavior

Many people with autism are also hypersensitive or under-sensitive to light, noise, and touch. They may be unable to stand the sound of a dishwasher, or, on the other extreme, need to flap and even injure themselves to be fully aware of their bodies. These sensory differences are sometimes called "sensory processing disorder" or "sensory processing dysfunction," and they may be treatable with sensory integration therapy.

Sensory processing dysfunction is the ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organize and interpret that information, and make a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic.

People who have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, don’t experience these interactions in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information that comes in and how they respond with emotional, motor, and other reactions. For example, some children with autism feel as if they're being constantly bombarded with sensory information.

Sensory integration therapy is essentially a form of occupational therapy, and it is generally offered by specially trained occupational therapists. It involves specific sensory activities to help a child appropriately respond to light, sound, touch, smells, and other input. Intervention may include swinging, brushing, playing in a ball pit and a whole gamut of other activities.

 The outcome of these activities may be better focus, improved behavior, and even lowered anxiety.

For a child with autism, these techniques may involve soothing strategies for managing transition from home to school. And for adults with autism it may involve vocational skills, cooking skills and more.

Challenges for Children with SPD

According to the Foundation for Knowledge in Development, children with SPD have additional issues related to their behavior, including anxiety, depression, aggression and trouble with social interactions. This can affect their self-esteem and lead to other emotional and academic problems. 

Until recently sensory issues were not considered a core symptom of autism, and practitioners observing these symptoms would make a diagnosis of SPD, treated as a separate condition.

In 2013, sensory challenges were added to the list of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. What that means was that now everyone on the spectrum has some level of sensory processing disorder.

Research on Sensory Integration Therapy

One study of children on the autism spectrum between ages 6 and 12 found a "significant decrease in autistic mannerisms" in a group treated with sensory integration therapy. The researchers wrote that further study was needed, including looking at individualized treatments for autistic children. 

The Sensory Integration Fidelity Measure was developed to provide occupational therapists with a set of guidelines for how to provide consistent intervention. A group of researchers used this measure and a goal attainment scale to be used to help children gradually transition toward modified behavior.


At the study's conclusion, children were given standardized tests that showed that the group who received the sensory integration therapy required less assistance from their parents to manage social situations and self-soothing.


Parham L, Roley, S, May-Benson T, Koomar J, Brett-Green B, Burke J, Cohn E, Mailloux Z, Miller LJ, Schaaf R. American Journal of Occupational Therapy "Development of a Fidelity Measure for Research on the Effectiveness of the Ayres Sensory Integration intervention." (2011)

Roseann C. Schaaf, R, Benevides,T,  Mailloux, Z,  Faller, F,  Hunt, J, Hooydonk, E, Freeman, R, Leiby, B, Sendecki, J, Kelly, D. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders  "An Intervention for Sensory Difficulties in Children with Autism." (2014)

Pfeiffer, B, Koenig, K, Kinnealey, M PhD, Sheppard, M Henderson, L.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy "Effectiveness of Sensory Integration Interventions in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders"  (Jan. 2011)