In an effort to help autistic individuals with “sensory dysfunction,” occupational therapists, teachers of autistic students and others have often used a treatment called “sensory integration therapy.” Using a number of items — large bouncy balls, weighted vests, weighted blankets, putty with different scents or textures and a lot of other stuff (there are companies selling all sorts of such “sensory stimuli”) — therapists seek to integrate a child’s “disordered,” differently-functioning sensory system.
Some families, like that of now 18-year-old Woody Sims of Colorado, have found sensory integration therapy to be a lifesaver. Diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) at the age of 4, Woody recalls (as he tells ABC) that was so “over-stimulated” that he had “deep fears of loud noises, cooked carrots and handwriting.” Sensory-based therapies helped him with his coordination and to learn to manage with environments that had seemed “harsh and jarring.”
Beth Arky of the New York-based Child Mind Institute describes specialized gyms and listening programs (involving hearing specially designed CDs) that, under the supervision of occupational therapists and others, have helped a number of children with SPD, autism and other neurological challenges thrive.
Sensory Integration Therapy Questioned
A new study in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders has found, after a review of 25 different studies, that sensory integration therapy is not scientifically supported. As researcher Mark O’Reilly of the University of Texas at Austin, says, “Rigorous, methodologically sound studies do not indicate that it helps and, in fact, the majority of studies that were reviewed reported no benefits for children with ASD.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics had previously issued a statement that, while not advising against the popular treatment, asserted that “the amount of research regarding the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is limited and inconclusive.” As Arky writes, “there is much debate over the claim that [sensory integration] can change a child’s ‘wiring,’ or long-term sensory responses.”
Much of the evidence for the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is anecdotal. Our teenage autistic son Charlie, who indeed has many sensory sensitivities including hypersensitive hearing and a highly attuned sense of touch, has not seemed to benefit too much from sensory integration treatments. Some he has tried include wearing weighted vests and weights on his shoes, being brushed with special brushes, having orange scent wafted around him and being placed in a lycra “body sock.”
Sensory Dysfunction Is Real
The effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is debatable, but there is no question that Charlie and many on the autism spectrum have highly sensitive sensory systems and hear and smell and feel all sorts of sensations as painfully as some experience fingernails on a chalkboard. Charlie and many others experience “sensory overload” in which many senses are confused together or in which one sense is experienced with deep intensity.
Indeed — in sharp contrast to how it was originally defined — autism is now often spoken about as a condition involving individuals “sensing too much” as Andrew Sullivan writes in discussing an animated video by Miguel Jiron at New York’s Imagine Science Film Festival. As Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who is herself on the autism spectrum says, her sensory sensitivity extends to sensing other people’s emotions: “I can walk into a room and feel all the emotional energy in the room, but it’s completely undifferentiated,” she says.
Autism, far from being a mental health disorder in which individuals were seen as withdrawing into themselves in large part due to bad “refrigerator parents” who were so emotionally “frigid” they failed to bond with their children, can rather be seen as all about feeling too much. Understanding that Cohen-Rottenberg, Charlie and many others struggle every day and, potentially, every moment, with sensory overload can go a long way to explaining why someone on the spectrum might take many minutes (at least) to respond to a question, or need to go and sit away from a chattering crowd.
There may be no “cure” for sensory overload, just as there is no cure for autism. But understanding what it is like to experience what it is to “sense too much” can go a very long way in helping those like Charlie who experience the world so very differently.
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