Sensory therapy for developmental problems?

May 31, 2012

Occupational and other types of therapists are increasingly using sensory-based integration therapies to treat children with developmental and behavioral disorders. Are these therapies effective for children with sensory deficits?

Sensory-based integration (SI) therapies-designed to help organize the sensory system by providing vestibular, proprioceptive, auditory, and tactile inputs-are increasingly becoming part of overall treatment plans for children diagnosed with developmental and behavioral disorders.

However, it is unclear whether these children have actual disorders of their sensory pathways or whether their sensory deficits are manifestations of their developmental and behavioral disorders.

A well-developed sensory system can integrate input from visual, auditory, proprioceptive, and vestibular sources. If sensory neurons are not signaling or functioning efficiently, problems can arise with sensory integration that can impede development, learning, and emotional regulation.

Sensory integration therapy involves activities that use brushes, swings, balls, and other specially designed equipment to help organize the sensory system and identify and modify barriers that limit participation in everyday activities. Although such therapies are widely used, experts have had a difficult time defining sensory integration dysfunction and determining the effectiveness of the therapy.

In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that pediatricians not use “sensory processing disorder” as a diagnosis but rather evaluate for other developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, developmental coordination disorder, and anxiety disorder when sensory symptoms are present and refer when appropriate.

The AAP also recommends that pediatricians communicate to parents that limited data are available on the use of sensory-based therapies for childhood developmental and behavioral problems. If a child is being treated with sensory-based therapies, the AAP advises pediatricians to play an active role in teaching parents how to determine whether such therapies are effective by setting specific goals, timeframes, and measures of success.

Finally, the AAP recommends that pediatricians make sure families understand that occupational therapy is a limited resource; insurance programs and schools will usually assist with only a limited number of sessions, so the service needs to be used optimally.

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