Sensory strategies are a tool

In the sensory world, there are lot of different terms and phrases.  It can quickly get confusing, even for trained therapists!  The terms also change over time.  In this article I would like to explain the differences between sensory strategies and sensory integration (SI) therapy.  I will cover

  • A definition of sensory strategies

  • Comparisons between sensory strategies and sensory integration

  • Examples of sensory strategies

father holding child up, smiling, text, sensory strategies vs sensory integration

Sensory strategies are a tool

In the sensory world, there are lot of different terms and phrases.  It can quickly get confusing, even for trained therapists!  The terms also change over time.  In this article I would like to explain the differences between sensory strategies and sensory integration (SI).  It will cover

  • A definition of sensory strategies

  • Comparisons between sensory strategies and sensory integration

  • Examples of sensory strategies

Defining sensory strategies

Sensory strategies are supports or equipment which use the senses to help organise arousal levels and engagement in activity.

Arousal is the level of alertness in the body, I explore it further in this article.  Sensory strategies can be used to change our level of alertness or arousal.

Occupational therapists may use the sensory strategy to organise a child’s arousal, to support them to engage in meaningful activities.  This might include  but listening to their teacher, or successfully playing with their friends in the playground.

Example sensory strategies include wobble cushions to help a child stay more alert, or using touch pressure or heavy work to help a child to stay calm.  A fidget toy is another example of a sensory strategy which uses the touch sense.

Sensory strategies are informed by sensory integration theory, but are not the same as sensory integration treatment.  Some people will use these terms interchangeably, but this is incorrect.  I discuss the differences between them further below.

What’s the difference between sensory strategies and sensory integration?

To answer this question, I would like to start by defining two terms, sensory integration theory and sensory integration treatment.

Sensory integration theory

Sensory integration theory is the original theory proposed by Dr A. Jean Ayres. This theory has been built on by other therapists such as Winnie Dunn, Zoe Mailloux, Anita Bundy, Shelly Lane, Sarah Schoen and Lucy Miller. The explores how the brain processes sensory information to produce a response.  Dr Ayres’ research explored the links between how children processed sensory information and how they learn and developed sensory integration theory.   You can read more about the history of sensory integration (and sensory processing) here.

Sensory integration treatment

Sensory integration treatment is a specific treatment approach designed by Dr Ayres.  To separate it from other approached, it is now called Ayres® Sensory Integration.  This approach should only be provided by trained therapists who have completed additional post-graduate training.  Therapists using this approach should follow specific guidelines called a fidelity measure.  These guidelines were created to ensure therapists using the approach were adhering to specific criteria.

What does Ayres® Sensory Integration (ASI) treatment look like?

Therapists using ASI will be focusing on three core principles

occupational therapist supporting child on a wobble board

ASI in action

Isla has been working with her occupational therapist for the last three months.  Her initial assessment indicated that she has sensitivity with her vestibular and touch senses and she has dyspraxia.  Her parents were concerned that she never interacted with children in the playground.  School noticed that she was quite fearful when in larger groups and often didn’t join in PE.

Her therapist’s goals included reducing touch sensitivity and her fear of movement. She has used swings, scooters, ball pits, climbing walls and barrels to help Isla become more confident with moving.  During therapy she facilitates adaptive responses which help Isla to integrate the sensory messages her brain is receiving.  Isla always chooses the equipment, but her therapist continually makes adjustments to ensure she is challenged, but successful.

What do sensory strategies look like?

Sensory strategies are any sensory activity or equipment which considers Ayres’ theory.  However, they do not meet the fidelity criteria for Ayres® Sensory Integration (ASI).  Sometimes they are a passive strategy such as a piece of equipment.  If they are active, they are not typically focussed on achieving an adaptive response, the focus is to support the child’s level of arousal.

Equipment like a weight blanket, considers that deep touch pressure is calming, this thinking is drawn from Ayres’ theory.  But, it is a passive strategy which is applied to the child.  It does not target multiple senses and it does not support an adaptive response.

A movement break may at first look more like ASI than a weighted blanket as it is active and sometimes child led.  However, it does not target adaptive responses in the same way as ASI.  Typically, movement breaks consist similar movements each time. They are designed to support regulation, but not necessarily to improve the processing of sensory messages in the same way as ASI.

girl in beanbag with teacher rolling textured ball text touch sense

Sensory strategies to increase arousal

Oliva’s arousal is often low.  She is slower to process sensory inputs and to notice her environment.  This means that she can struggle to pay attention in class.  To help to increase her arousal, staff use a variety of sensory strategies.

They use different massagers and touch sensations (e.g. the spikey ball) to help to wake up her touch sense.  She sits and bounces on the gym ball for five to ten minutes between lessons.  And, at break times she has access to the swings and trampoline. These sensory strategies help to increase her arousal and support her attention in class.

Where do sensory diets and sensory circuits fit in?

Sensory diets use sensory strategies.  They group together a few different sensory strategies to help to organise a child’s arousal.  Sensory diets draw on sensory integration theory.  They were introduced to provide a structure to using sensory strategies across the day.  You can read more about sensory diets here or you may also like our free sensory diet cards.

Sensory circuits are another way to group sensory strategies.  Typically they include a lot of movement.  They are set up like a ‘gym circuit’.  Children move around between the activities in an organised sequence but as mentioned above, the circuit does not target adaptive responses.

Sensory strategies vs sensorimotor

Another common term that includes the word sensory is sensorimotor.  Sensorimotor refers to movement activities which encourage motor skill development.  The term comes from Piaget’s stages of development.  The sensorimotor stage is the period from birth to two years.  It is the stage when infants and toddlers develop their motor skills.  It’s the period where they love to stand and put their head down and lift it up repeatedly.  This sensorimotor experience helps them to develop their balance and their awareness of where their body is in space and how it moves.

The senses provide continual feedback to allow the brain to adjust its movements.  In fact, it is very difficult for us to move without using our senses.  Dance classes, obstacle courses and PE are great examples of sensorimotor activities.  Whilst the official sensorimotor stage is until 2 years old, we can continue to learn new movements well into adulthood!

One easy way to tell the difference between sensory strategies and sensory integration is whether the child is actively or passively engaging.  Any sensory activities which are passive would be a sensory strategy.

Which sensory strategy is best?

No one size fits all when it comes to using sensory strategies.  Everyone is different and has access to different resources.  This means that the sensory strategies will be unique to that individual.

You will need to explore which sensory strategies work best for them.  This means you will need to monitor the effectiveness of the strategies you are using.  It is also important that you are aware of any safety considerations or contraindications for using each strategy.  Kim explores goal setting, safety and monitoring of sensory strategies further in Levels 2 and 3 of Sensory Processing with GriffinOT.

How can I use sensory strategies to support regulation?

As I said at the start, sensory strategies are often used to help to support regulation.  Regulation is the ability to match arousal to the environment and the activity.  Essentially, it’s the ability to adjust to an optimal level of arousal.  Some children (and adults) have more difficulty regulating themselves than others and sensory strategies can help.  This article explores the links between sensory strategies and regulation in much further depth.

I want more sensory strategy ideas!

All of the sensory suggestions and equipment explored on the GriffinOT website, and in our training, are examples of sensory strategies. You can read more articles on sensory strategies here, or you can join our online training to learn even more.   If you need suggestions at school Kim’s book Success with Sensory Supports is also a great resource.

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