At Springbrook, we include sensory modulation throughout the day in everything we do, particularly in conjunction with Occupational Therapy.
In addition to having a dedicated sensory rooms that we use for focused work helping our students better organize their responses to sensory input, we also have pressure vests and sleeves, full-spectrum lights, balance balls, noise canceling earphones, and other sensory integration therapy tools.
In general, our sensory integration/modulation therapies help students improve their behavioral reactions to three basic sensory systems: touch (the tactile system), balance (the vestibular system of the inner ear), and body-awareness (the proprioceptive system). These three fundamental systems are not only dependent on each other, they are also interconnected with other systems in the brain.
Touch and Autism
Many children with autism dislike being touched or are over or under-sensitive to light touch, temperature, pressure, and pain. A dysfunctional response to touch can also result in withdrawing from others, refusal to wear certain kinds of clothes, dislike of textured foods, reluctance to getting hands dirty, and general hyperactivity. At Springbrook Autism Program, we work on developing better responses to touch by using pressure vests, gardening (aka “dirt therapy”), tasting groups, food play, and other methods. Overall, the goal is to reduce negative, defensive responses to good touch.
Balance and Autism
Children with autism often appear clumsy or fearful in new spaces to the outside observer. The root cause can be a dysfunction within the vestibular system—the fluid-filled canals in the inner ear that help us know when we’re standing upright or when we’re tilted by detecting movement, or changes in the position of the head. Children with autism may be hypersensitive to vestibular stimulation, which can make them afraid of movements such as swinging, climbing, sliding, or descending stairs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some children with autism have vestibular systems that are under-stimulated, causing them to seek out stimulation through excessive spinning, bouncing, rocking, or body twirling. Through sensory integration therapy, we work to help children with autism achieve a better sense of balance through play and Recreational Therapy.
Body-Awareness and Autism
Proprioception is sometimes also called our body’s sixth sense—it refers to the subconscious awareness of your body in space, or your body’s innate sense of belonging to itself and knowing its own boundaries. For a person with a well-developed proprioceptive system, your body position and the amount of strength you use to complete a task automatically adjusts to respond to different situations, or different sensory input. For example, when standing on a bumpy subway, your legs may automatically tense in order to keep you from falling. When you reach to pick up a pen, you will automatically use less force than when you pick up a heavy backpack. Children with autism receive and process proprioceptive information differently, which makes their reactions differ. They may struggle with fine motor skills, such as buttoning a shirt or eating soup, exhibit unusual body postures, crawl later or much less than normal when young, and have a tendency to stumble or fall, especially on uneven surfaces. Through our sensory integration and modulation therapy program, we work on helping our students get a better sense of themselves using wobble boards, fine motor drills, and other techniques. While sensory dysfunction is both a physical and a neurological issue, the outward manifestation of the problem is most often behavioral. Children with autism and related disorders often become withdrawn, aggressive, unfocused, frustrated, or self-destructive as a result of sensory processing delays. Through organizing, stimulating, and soothing sensory activities, we are able to help children with autism overcome many of these challenges.