The Difference Between Sensory Integration Therapy and Sensory Play

Sensory integration therapy vs sensory play – what's the difference?

We know that a very common source of confusion for people is the distinction between sensory integration therapy and sensory play. To help us explain the key differences, and why the two are related but not the same, we spoke with Kath Smith – consultant occupational therapist at ASI Wise, and clinician, innovator, lecturer, mentor, Research Active EASI UK and Ireland lead, and general fount of knowledge on sensory integration. Keep reading to learn more about Kath’s take on the question: ‘sensory integration vs sensory play – what's the difference?’

Let me begin by saying that the answer to this question is complicated because sensory integration is a discrete neuroscience. People often assume that by using equipment intended to aid sensory integration that they are then receiving sensory integration therapy – but that’s not the case, and the difference is all in how the equipment is used.

When does sensory play become sensory integration therapy?

Let me give you an example: a common piece of equipment used in sensory integration is a swing. Now by simply using the swing you might be experiencing sensory play, but not sensory integration therapy. The use of the swing becomes therapy when an occupational therapist is involved, guiding the use of the swing with sensory integration theories and therapies in mind. It’s all about the skill the therapist employs to do 20 different things with the swing, and how that swing can be used for different clients and to support different objectives. It’s not just a case of sitting on the swing and playing.

Now, keeping that in mind, you have the basis for an answer to the question, ‘what is the difference between sensory integration therapy and sensory play?’ - but let’s dive a little deeper.

How are sensory integration theories used in sensory integration therapy?

We are all sensory beings. You cannot deprive a person of sensory experiences; if you do, then the person will fail to thrive. We all need sensory input to grow, learn and develop throughout childhood and as adults as we continue to use sensory experiences to become wiser. Sensory integration, in this regard, is a process that every human does all the time.

Occupational therapists utilise sensory integration theories to help them distinguish when sensory integration and processing is or isn’t developing as expected. There are three key ways sensory integration theories can be used:

  • To show whether normal development is occurring
  • To help understand when an individual may not be developing as expected, and whether they have sensory integration and processing difficulties
  • To inform therapies when sensory development has not progressed as expected

So, where does sensory play come into it all?

Here’s where the important distinction between sensory play and sensory integration therapy comes in – sensory play actually contributes to point one of the above list. Sensory play supports normal sensory development. Sensory enriched play is something every therapist wants to see to encourage normal development – ultimately, it can be preventative of sensory integration and processing difficulties.

Point two of the above relates to using the Ayres’ theory of sensory integration to understand whether normal development is occurring – but it’s not the actual application of therapy.

Point three in the above list relates to the use of sensory integration theories combined with therapy to target specific sensory difficulties within the context of clinical reasoning. And that’s when you’ve got sensory integration therapy.

By this, I mean that clinical reasoning (the integration and application of different types of knowledge to weigh evidence, critically think about arguments and to reflect upon the process used to arrive at a diagnosis) is needed to effectively use sensory integration therapy to support patients with sensory difficulties. Using their clinical reasoning a therapist, for example, may also look to combine sensory integration therapy with cognitive behavioural therapy, depending on the diagnosis of the individual – sensory integration therapy doesn’t have to sit in silo. The long-term role of the therapy as a whole is to help people function better in their life - sensory integration theories can help to unpick how and why the sensory systems aren’t doing that.

In conclusion, sensory play can contribute towards sensory development – but it isn’t therapy

All in all, sensory play is always a positive and is something that families and schools can deliver to enrich sensory development. But it isn’t the delivery of therapy – sensory integration therapy is the combination of sensory integration theories with clinical reasoning and a therapist’s wide-ranging expertise to target specific sensory difficulties.

If you’re looking for more useful resources exploring sensory integration therapy, and tools and advice for occupational therapists, make sure you visit the ASI Wise Facebook page.

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