I frequently use Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing Intervention in my work as an occupational therapist with clients who have severe behavioral, sensory processing and developmental challenges. I get criticism both by professionals who question the validity of sensory processing intervention and those who dislike my integrating it with other treatment approaches. It is time to transcend the polarizing debate about the sensory processing model and put it in perspective.
Like most occupational therapists my treatment grew from my clinical practice and the influence of many gifted teachers. I was introduced to sensory integration intervention in my entry-level occupational therapy training and studied it extensively at the post-graduate level. I spent thousands of dollars on my sensory processing training and although I’m frugal (my son says “a cheap skate”) it was worth every penny.
My sensory processing teachers have had so many students that they wouldn’t even know my name, but they transformed my professional and personal life through their mentoring. Among my most effective sensory processing teachers were the late Ginny Scardinia, Mildred Ross, Winnie Dunn, and Lucy Jane Miller. Each holds a distinct view of sensory processing intervention, is an occupational therapist, master teacher, and base their practice on the teaching of A. Jean Ayres the founder of Sensory Integration.
I first met Mildred Ross as a guest lecturer in my undergraduate occupational therapy class. Using sensory (e.g., touch, movement, smells) strategies she developed individual and group interventions that improve the functioning of individuals with severe psychiatric and developmental challenges. Disagreeing with the “experts” who viewed these clients as “hopelessly regressed psychiatric patients”, Mildred motivated her clients by respecting them as people, caring about them, and beginning at their current developmental level then gradually improving their functional skills. Mildred used a similar approach with occupational therapists, teaching us what an honor it was to help others and motivating us to improve our skills. I remember that the professors and conference leaders who invited Mildred to speak often set an egg timer for one hour before she began, and kept it ringing until she stopped speaking. Although they told me the timer was essential and I usually hate listening to people talk, I always hoped the timer would break so I could listen to her all day.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHuhYaYRIb8
After five years as a school occupational therapist a unique experience introduced me to my next mentor Ginny Scardinia. I was watching my OT student treat a 6-year old girl who had developmental, behavioral, and PTSD challenges using a net swing when the girl suddenly spoke for the first time. I’d been treating that girl for half a year and gotten little response, but after that single half-hour session from my OT student the child was able to consistently speak in school. My OT intern told me that she’d learned sensory integration treatment during her previous affiliation with Ginny Scardinia at the Ayres Clinic. I soon located Ginny, took classes with her, and bugged her to teach me whenever she could from that day on.
Ginny Scardinia was unique in her ability to motivate me to do whatever it took to learn to help children like she could. I recently learned that Ginny inspired many occupational therapists, and a research study was conducted summarizing her skills as a master mentor http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23927618 Over 25 years have past but I still remember that after she first saw me treat she said, “You’re off to a good start, but you need to learn a lot more about neurology and sensory integration and honey, I can teach you”. I knew that she was right and although I never reached her level as a clinician I am still trying.
Ginny inspired me to take all the sensory integration courses I could and to take motor learning classes at Columbia University T C. The motor learning research taught me that clients have the ability to recover from neurologically based challenges through engaging in developmentally appropriate sensory experiences in their natural environments. My experiences with Ginny and Mildred Ross inspired me to lead a group for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders with the help of occupational therapy students and the children’s parents.
I met Winnie Dunn and Lucy Jane Miller at an AOTA symposium where they were mentoring new researchers by letting us help with their projects. I remember asking them both why they were developing assessments when new treatments were needed, and they told me that until we learned to measure sensory integration interventions we couldn’t improve and validate our treatments. Winnie Dunn developed the Sensory Profile, a reliable and valid measure of sensory processing abilities www.sensoryprofile.com Dr. Dunn also went on to develop an intervention model that used the sensory profile to coach clients on adapting their sensory modulation styles so they could function more effectively. http://events.jeena.org/media/blog_media/2011/05/13/Sensory_Integration.pdf While I still do direct and group interventions I always include consultation to the client, family, and teachers regarding how their sensory styles impact their interactions and functioning.
By taking the Sensory Profile I found I had significant Low Registration and Sensory Sensitivity, at a level where only 2 out of 100 adults my age score. Being low registration influences me to often miss sensory input that others notice. Because I am also sensory sensitive I also frequently get overwhelmed by sensory input I do notice and take a long time to accommodate to touch (e.g., I’m bothered by neck ties, rings and watches).
I’ve learned to stomp my feet and look people in the eye when they are telling me something important, and to take an hour walk when I’m feeling overwhelmed so I don’t yell at anyone. I still can’t wear a tie when I speak but can tolerate wearing shoes rather than sneakers. Knowing my sensory profile helps me accommodate my behavior to the needs of my clients. I tend to talk loudly and quickly, but consciously speak softer and slower when working with clients who have sensory sensitivity and attention deficit hyperactive disorder.
As a new researcher who was a member of Lucy Jane Miller’s team I learned to be a better observer. Although she is arguably one of the most influential leaders in sensory processing intervention (helping to create the term) what inspired me most about her was her honesty. I was putting off getting my Ph.D. because I felt I wasn’t smart enough, but was inspired when Dr. Miller asked me for help changing her flat tire. I figured if someone that smart couldn’t change a tire I could try to get my Ph.D. even though I didn’t feel smart enough.
Dr. Miller has evolved from developing assessment tools to supporting sensory processing intervention research through the Sensory Processing Disorder Network www.spdnetwork.org Her organization presents workshops on sensory processing basic and clinical research. I refer parents and clinicians to her organization because it is both factual and parent friendly.
My clinical experiences have shown me that sensory processing intervention helps clients with severe sensory processing, behavioral and developmental challenges to improve their functional skills. I have discovered the value of sensory processing intervention through individual, group, client/family education, and environmental consultation treatment. My perspective on sensory processing and professional vision wouldn’t have been possible with out my teachers and mentors. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, “If my professional vision has expanded it is because I stand tall on the shoulders of giants”.