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Incorporating Sensory Integration into Your Autism Program

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Autism the Way I See It       

Incorporating Sensory Integration into your Autism Program     

By Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | March/April 2005


People who have attended any of my presentations know that I am a strong proponent of sensory integration (SI). Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), be they mildly or severely affected, have one or more of their senses affected so that it interferes with their ability to learn and process information from the world around them. While the most common sense affected is hearing, vision, touch, taste, smell, balance (vestibular) and awareness of their body in space (proprioception) can all function abnormally in the person with autism.

It is just common sense, therefore, that sensory integration activities such as relaxing deep pressure, swinging, visual tools and other strategies be a component of any good autism program. These activities help the child’s nervous system calm down and be more receptive to learning. They can help reduce hyperactivity, tantrums and repetitive stimming. SI assures that a child is at optimal levels of attention and readiness to benefit from other intervention programs, such as behavioral, educational, speech or social skills programs.

To be effective, sensory activities must be done every day. I still encounter parents and some professionals who believe that SI doesn’t work, precisely because the activities have to be repeated on a daily basis. Would you question whether or not eye glasses worked because they had to be used every day? Another example is using medication to improve behaviors. Medication has to be taken every day in order for it to be effective. The same holds true for sensory activities.

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) techniques are the core of many good autism programs. Research clearly shows that a good ABA program using discrete trial is very effective for teaching language to young children with ASD. The best ABA programs carried out today are more flexible than the original Lovaas method, where most of the activities were done while the child was seated at a table. Newer programs have a greater variety of activities and teaching often takes place in more natural settings. However, even well-trained ABA professionals are frequently bewildered as to incorporating SI into their behavior-based program. In my opinion, their problem stems from them viewing SI (or any adjunct therapy program) as separate and apart from the ABA program. Therapies for any children with autism are inter-related. We can’t work just on behavior, or just on social skills, or just on sensory. The progress achieved in one area will affect functioning in another, and all need to be integrated into a whole to achieve maximum benefits. To use a visual analogy: a good ABA program is like a Christmas tree. It is the framework, the foundation, the base of a child’s therapeutic program. Because of the differences that people on the spectrum manifest, other adjunct programs are often needed in addition to ABA, like sensory integration, dietary intervention, social skills training, or language therapy. These services are the ornaments on the tree, which render each tree unique, beautiful and specific to one child’s needs and level of functioning.

There are several easy ways to integrate sensory integration into a young child’s behavior-based program. Try doing some discrete trails while the child receives soothing pressure. One child I knew learned best when he lay across a beanbag chair, and another bag was placed on top of him, sandwich style. The pressure calmed his nervous system and made him ready for learning. Try slow swinging – 10 to 12 times a minute – during the lesson. Swinging helps stimulate language and is why a growing number of speech and occupational therapists hold joint therapy sessions to improve learning. To help a fidgety child sit still and attend to his lesson, try a weighted vest. The vest is most effective if the child wears it for 20 minutes and then takes it off for 20 minutes. This prevents habituation. Conversely, rev up a slower sensory system so that learning can happen by doing a drill while a child jumps on a trampoline, or by using a vibrating chair pad.

Some of the most severe children with autism function like a TV with bad reception. Visual and auditory perception fade in and out depending on the strength of the signal. In the most severe cases, visual and auditory information is scrambled, rendering the child unable to decipher what he sees or hears at any given moment. Recent brain scan studies show that the brain circuits that perceive complex sounds are abnormal. Sensory integration activities may help unscramble the child’s perception and enable information to get through – a prerequisite for any type of learning.

While sensory challenges often lessen over time, and especially as a result of SI treatment, we must acknowledge the detrimental effects that sensory impairments have on the ability of children with ASD to benefit from any treatment and plan accordingly. Sensory integration should be an important part of any treatment program for a person with ASD.


Boddart, N. et al. 2004. “Perception of Complex Sounds in Autism: Abnormal Auditory Cortical Processing in Children.” American Journal of Psychiatry 161: 2117-20.

Ray, T., L. King., and T. Grandin. 1988. “The Effectiveness of Self-Initiated Vestibular Stimulation on Producing Speech Sounds.” Journal of Occupational Therapy Research 8: 186-90.

Zisserman, L. 1992. “The Effect of Deep Pressure on Self-stimulating Behaviors in a Child with Autism and Other Disabilities.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 46: 547-51.



TempleGrandinis the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of two books on autism: Emergence: Labeled Autistic (1986) and Thinking in Pictures (1995), and is coauthor with Kate Duffy of the book, Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism (2004). In her ‘day job’ she specializes in designing livestock handling systems. Temple devotes much of her time to increasing awareness of autism through extensive speaking engagements. She makes her home in Fort Collins, Colorado. For autism resources by Temple Grandin visit www.templegrandin.com.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2005. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.





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