Sensory integration (SI) is a specialty area of occupational therapy that is based on over 40 years of theory and research. The term “sensory integration” refers to:
- The way the brain organizes sensations for engagement in occupation
- A theory based on neuroscience that provides perspective for appreciating the sensory dimensions of human behavior
- A model for understanding the way in which sensation affects development
- Assessments including standardized testing, systematic observation, and parent or teacher interviews that identify patterns of sensory integration dysfunction
- Intervention strategies that enhance information processing, praxis, and engagement in daily life for individuals, populations and organizations
Most SI research and practice focuses on children who have a variety of developmental and learning difficulties, including autism and other developmental disabilities, developmental risk conditions, behavior and attention disorders, learning disabilities and developmental coordination disorder. Thorough assessment is critical in ascertaining whether a sensory processing issue is a factor in the child’s development, and if so, which intervention strategies will best help the child and family.
Classic intervention usually takes place within a specially designed therapeutic environment that allows the therapist to present specific sensory and movement challenges to the child, which gradually increase in complexity over time. This kind of intervention is characterized by a playful atmosphere in which the child is encouraged to generate ideas for activities, to flexibly respond to novel challenges and to develop confidence as well as competence.
Intervention includes consultation and education with parents, teachers and other caregivers, modification of environments and inclusion of appropriate sensory-based activities throughout the day. The application of sensory integration principles within organizations takes into consideration the sensory demands in the workplace. The application for populations takes into account the sensory and practic differences and demands for a population such as adults with autism.
The sensory integration (SI) specialty was originally developed by USC Chan faculty member A. Jean Ayres PhD, OTR (1920-1988), who was both an occupational therapist and an educational psychologist. Dr. Ayres developed a theoretical framework, a set of standardized tests (today known as the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests), and a clinical approach for identification and remediation of SI problems in children. Her publications on sensory integration span a 30-year period from the 1960s through the 1980s, and include psychometric studies as well as clinical trials and single case studies. Ayres’ ideas ushered in a new way of looking at children and understanding many of the developmental, learning and emotional problems that arise during childhood.
Sensory integration is included in one of the core areas of research at USC Chan today. In the Innovations in Neurodevelopmental Sensory Processing Research (insp!re) Laboratory, we are advancing our knowledge of early risk signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and promoting optimal engagement and development for young children with neurodevelopmental differences. In the Sensory Adaptations in Dental Environments Laboratory, we are studying interventions that alter the sensory characteristics of the dental environment in order to decrease children’s physiological anxiety and negative responses during oral care and contribute to increased child comfort as well as safer, more efficient, and less costly dental treatment.
Our USC Chan graduate students can take the elective courses OT 564 Sensory Integration, which provides a comprehensive overview of sensory integration theory and OT 610 Sensory Integrative Dysfunction. OT 610 is a 4-unit graduate course, which entails 14 weeks of in-person training that takes place primarily at Pediatric Therapy Network in Torrance, California, a not-for-profit interdisciplinary clinical center founded and directed by the colleagues of Dr. A. Jean Ayres. The course includes weekly seminars led by USC Chan faculty members and supervised, hands-on clinical intervention with children and families.
We also offer sensory integration material in continuing education courses through the USC Chan Sensory Integration Continuing Education Certificate Program. These introductory level courses are designed for practicing occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants; however, all levels of experience are welcome as are all areas of practice. The online format allows participants to complete the course from anywhere and our students have come from around the globe. International courses have also been offered in-person in more than 15 different countries across 4 continents, and USC Chan continues to expand to new countries each year.