Improving Sensory Integration, Emotion Regulation, & Learning

Occupational, Speech/Language, and mental health therapists can work in conjunction with teachers to integrate sensory integration and mindfulness activities with positive behavioral support preventive interventions. Sensory Integration can help enhance emotion regulation and behavior. Synthesizing sensory integration with positive behavioral support strategies comprehensively addresses the development of sensory seeking, novelty seeking, and impulsive behaviors associated with conduct disorder behaviors. The synthesis of sensory integration and behavioral strategies has been extremely affective for my students with behavioral, psychiatric, sensory processing, and learning challenges.

Occupational therapists using sensory integration benefit from synthesizing the Sensory Integration and Positive Behavioral Support frames of reference to improve student’s occupational performance at home and school. It is important to work with teachers, families, as well as Speech/language and mental health therapists in schools to comprehensively address the learning needs of children with behavioral, sensory processing, and learning challenges. While schools tend to delegate the students needs (e.g., cognitive, psychological, physical, social) to diverse professionals they come to school as whole unique individuals.

The DECA and PATHS positive behavioral support programs work well in conjunction with occupational, speech/language, and mental health therapy intervention. The DECA assessment address the resiliency skills of attachment, initiative, and self-control while also screening for internalizing and externalizing behavior concerns. If a child has difficulties in self-control (e.g., never listen to or respect others) this goal area can be comprehensively addressed to improve learning. Examples of sensory integration classroom modifications that help address this goal are a sensory quiet area for use when becoming upset, a study carol to limit distractions, and a wall pushup bulletin board.



Infusing mindfulness movement activities into the PATHS positive behavioral support program can help hyper-reactive students pay attention.



The PATHS program includes lessons regarding understanding feelings, respecting others, and providing reinforcement for respecting others. Too often school staff members are so busy dealing with problem behaviors that we forget to reinforce the behaviors we want.  Collaboration between teachers and occupational, speech/language and mental health therapists in the schools can enhance positive behavioral support programs and student behavior.


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Greenberg, M.T. (2006). Promoting resilience in children and youth: Preventive interventions and their interface with neuroscience. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1094; 139-150.


Occupational Therapy for Autism

Occupational therapy improves the functioning of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), behavioral, and sensory processing challenges. Inclusion of sensory symptoms (e.g., over or under-responsive to or atypical interest in sensory stimuli) in the new DSM-5 ASD diagnosis has the potential to further promote the use of occupational therapy (OT) interventions for Autism. Research currently supports the relationship between sensory symptoms and functional behavior problems affecting individuals with ASD. However, the contribution of occupational therapists has been limited by a lack of attention to the interrelated sensory, behavioral, and developmental challenges of many individuals with ASD.

OT uses the sensory integration and behavioral frames of reference to improve functioning in daily activities. The Sensory Profile www.sensoryprofile.com ; PaganoFABTriggerCopingForms ,activity analysis, and clinical observations can be useful components of an OT Evaluation. The OT Evaluation helps determine the most important functional goals related to sensory and behavioral challenges.

Functional goals for clients with ASD can include increasing seated behavior, attention, and keeping safe hands (e.g., eliminating physical aggression towards ones self and others). Objective baseline data is used in developing the functional goal and monitoring progress. Examples of baseline data may include: client currently sits a maximum of 10 consecutive minutes, attends to teacher selected tasks for an average of 5 minutes, or keeps safe hands (e.g., does not hit others) for ten consecutive minutes.

Occupational therapy sensory interventions related to functional goals in ASD include psycho-education, environmental adaptations, sensory diet activities, and direct therapeutic intervention. Psycho-education involves teaching clients with ASD how their sensory processing, emotion regulation, and behavior challenges affect their functioning. A related intervention is coaching clients, families and professionals to develop environmental adaptations that enhance participation in daily activities.

Environmental adaptations include the use of adaptive equipment and techniques that enhance daily functioning. Commonly used adaptive equipment for ASD include noise canceling headphones, fidget toys, chewey tubes, and theraputty. Frequently used adaptive sensory strategies for clients with ASD include initially reducing then if needed incrementally increasing sensory input in a socially acceptable manner, choosing one activity and doing it for a set period of time beginning another task, and using a sensory coping area to improve self-control.

Clients with ASD, sensory processing, behavior, and social skill challenges may receive direct occupational therapy services including sensory and behavioral interventions. Given the strong relationship between tactile sensory processing and behavioral problems in ASD, touch intervention appears important. Examples of direct intervention activities for clients with ASD include massage, scrub brushing, vibration, mindfulness, yoga, and movement planning tasks.

By combining sensory and behavioral strategies as part of a transdisciplinary team, OTs can achieve functional goals that enhance the daily life of individuals with ASD (e.g., increased attention, improved social interactions, decreased self-injurious behaviors). Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT) http://education.ucsb.edu/autism is an evidence-based behavioral strategy that can be used in conjunction with sensory strategies. PRT provides developmental transdisciplinary interventions addressing effort, communication, and social interactions. Developed by a psychologist with expertise in Applied Behavioral Analysis and a Speech/Language Pathologist, PRT is a practical intervention that is useful for teachers, parents, as well as occupational, speech, and physical therapists.

For example, a behaviorist and I provided services to a kindergarten girl who had ASD, sensory seeking, and behavior challenges. Her repeated hand mouthing was interfering with learning and damaging the skin on her fingers. Our transdisciplinary assessments included a FAB Sensory Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA), Sensory Profile, and observations.  The FAB Sensory FBA adds sensory environment antecedents (e.g., loudness, crowding, transitions) to traditional FBA data for greater focus on antecedents (what happens before problematic behavior that could be changed to improve functioning).

The evaluation suggested she was sucking her hands to receive sensory input in her mouth and wetness on her hands. Using a Preference Assessment and Activity Analysis, her favorite activities matching the sensory input she got from hand sucking were mouthing a chewey tube and playing in a water table. Intervention involved allowing use of the chewey tube and water table as well as rewarding her for going progressively longer periods with out sucking her hands.



This example shows how sensory and behavioral strategies can be combined to improve functioning in individuals with ASD.  Transdisciplinary use of sensory and behavioral strategies is especially helpful for improving functioning in individuals with ASD, sensory processing, and behavior challenges. It is time for the conflicts to end so all professionals are working together to help our clients. Hopefully, recognition of sensory challenges in the new ASD diagnosis will encourage transdisciplinary sensory and functional behavioral interventions.


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Foss-Feig, J. H., Heacock, J. L., & Cascio, C. J. (2012). Tactile responsiveness patterns and their association with core features in autism spectrum disorders. Research in autism spectrum disorders, 6(1), 337-344.

Silva, L., & Schalock, M. (2013). Treatment of tactile impairment in young children with Autism: Results with qigong massage. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, 6(4), 12-20.

Stahmer, A., Suhrheinrich, J., Reed, S., Schreibman, L., Bolduc, C. (2011). Classroom Pivotal Response Teaching for children with Autism. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Mazefsky, C. A., Herrington, J., Siegel, M., Scarpa, A., Maddox, B. B., Scahill, L.& White, S. W. (2013). The role of emotion regulation in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(7), 679-688.