Occupational Therapists to the Rescue
The desire to help children caught in this bind started A. Jean Ayres, a California occupational therapist, doing research on sensory integration in the 1960s. Working with children whose learning and behavioral problems seemed to have no satisfactory explanation, she noticed that they had trouble accurately processing and modulating the information coming in from their senses. She worked on some techniques that would introduce needed sensory information, allowing for gradual improvement in the children's sensory abilities.
That work has been continued and refined over the past 40 years by other occupational therapists (OTs), who have made therapy with a sensory integration approach one of their techniques for helping children who cannot comfortably find their way in the world.
The job of OTs is to work on the skills (occupations) people need to function in their daily lives. For adults, that might involve regaining fine motor skills after an accident or stroke. For kids, it often involves learning the skills necessary for play and schoolwork and healthy relationships. These things are problems for kids with poor sensory integration function.
Working either in private clinics or in schools, OTs seek to strengthen the children's abilities to handle the information coming from their senses while also giving them strategies to find their own comfort zones without being disruptive to others.
A. Jean Ayres wasn't just a pioneer of sensory integration theory — she was related to a child with sensory integration disorder. Her correspondence with her nephew, in which he describes his sensory challenges and she offers sympathy and advice, has been collected in the book Love, Jean: Inspiration for Families Living With Dysfunction of Sensory Integration.
Play is the way children gain information about their world, experiment with different sensory experiences, learn the way their bodies work and how to manipulate them, and gain an understanding of the give and take of social interaction. Consequently, play is the medium through which OTs using a sensory integration approach do their work.
Such therapy is fun for kids, and it may look like nothing more than a session of swinging or game-playing or ball-pit lounging. But all the activities are carefully calibrated to increase children's ability to process, modulate, and integrate information coming in from the senses. Often, a puzzle or a board game is used as a distraction to keep the child from being overwhelmed by sensations that are usually frightening.