How sensory integration therapy can help child behaviour issues

Mary Hamilton has seen sensory integration improve the lives of children with behavioural issues

Mary Hamilton has seen sensory integration improve the lives of children with behavioural issues - Credit: Mim Howell

Throughout our normal day we experience different sensations and our brain interprets incoming sensory information from our environment.

This information is picked up via our senses through our eyes, ears, touch receptors, taste buds, smell receptors and our movements.

Our senses provide us with information about our body and the environment around us.

The process by which our brain interprets and organises all this information is called sensory integration.

For most of us, the process of sensory integration develops during pregnancy and through typical childhood experiences.

We can interpret, respond, adjust and adapt our body to all the incoming sensations.

For example, we can learn how to stand and walk by gaining knowledge of where our body is by feeling our legs, feet, pulling up and feeling the weight resistance against gravity and balancing step by step. Our muscles and joints tell us how much force there is.

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However, for some children the ability to integrate sensations and to organise them, does not develop well.

These children can be very irritable, avoid tasks and instructions, prefer to lay down, have poor social relationships, they can be disruptive and have difficulty sitting still or remaining on a chair for long enough to complete any work.

These children often have multiple behavioural tantrums, and it leaves parents and teachers not knowing what to do.

Such problems, if left untreated, can result in long term difficulties.

Often a behavioural modification approach is used to correct such behaviours.

However, we have found that they often do not work for these children.

What if these children do not have a secure neural foundation to build organised behaviour on to begin with?

These children will struggle with everyday tasks such as eating, getting dressed, brushing teeth and writing.

When these problems occur, it is likely that the child has a problem with sensory integration.

These problems can continue into adulthood.

The good news is we can all do something about it.

Why is sensory integration so important?

Sensory integration is a specialist approach often used by occupational therapists who have chosen to further their training to master’s level, specifically in Ayres Sensory Integration. Dr Ayres was the woman who discovered Sensory Integration.

It is a whole person approach and aims to identify participation challenges in the daily ‘occupations’ that a person carries out every day, such as getting dressed, sitting, handwriting, brushing teeth, accessing the curriculum at school.

A sensory integration assessment gathers information about the possible root causes as to why a child reacts negatively to normal routines of life, with the aim of enabling participation.

This can include sensory enrichment strategies for the classroom, an individualised sensory motor programme and actual treatment in a clinic using suspended equipment.

What should parents and teachers be looking for?

Children with SI problems often fail the curriculum, have poor sleep patterns, display frequent crying for no apparent reason, clumsiness, extremely fussiness with wearing clothes, washing, hair brushing, eating.

Typically they do not have any friends and experience either violent, disruptive or defiant behaviours.

Learning can be slow, disrupted by accidental touch, poor posture and body coordination.

Teachers and parents experience frustration and can often be at a loss to know how to respond to a child who reacts negatively to most situations and is often very isolated.

Mary Hamilton

Mary Hamilton - Credit: Mim Howell

What treatment is there?

Sensory integration is both a neurological process and a treatment.

After a thorough assessment, treatment will depend on the difficulties the child or adult experiences.

Treatment starts with addressing self regulation, getting the child calm so they can begin to process multiple levels of sensation.

In a clinic, suspended equipment enables a child or adult to experience new levels of sensation, often previously avoided.

This is done carefully with graded levels of input by a trained sensory integration therapist.

The individual’s feet are encouraged to come off the ground by using various swings to stimulate certain sensory systems.

The ‘just right’ level of input is measured by the individual in collaboration with the therapist.

Treatment should be challenging, but not overwhelming, fun and productive.

Home and school education plans which use sensory strategies throughout the day are vital, going hand in hand with clinic treatment.

Parent and teacher training is also important, so that all those who are involved in an individual’s care, understand and know how to support the child or adult.

Over the years I have treated hundreds of children individually.

Some come in with very clumsy coordination, cannot talk, they might be defiant, school avoiders, violent, or have resistance towards getting dressed, eating, and they do not play.

After intensive one-to-one intervention over several months these children have changed, they leave with many words, they are calmer, better coordinated, fully able to get dressed, eat and can play alone.

These are just some of the many surprises children reward me with!


Mary Hamilton is a paediatric occupational therapist and founder of Norwich-based ExcelChild Therapy. She is part of Ayres Sensory Integration Wise (ASI Wise) which provides international training of sensory integration for therapists. She is currently completing a professional doctorate, specialising in sensory integration and complex trauma. See excelchild.com for more, including details of forthcoming courses.