OccupationalTherapy.com Phone: 866-782-9924

Findings from Current Sensory Interventions for Autism

Alison Lane, Ph.D., OTR/L, Chelsea Hetrick, B.S.

August 1, 2013



What are some of your findings from the SenSA Laboratory at Ohio State University and your review of the literature when looking at current sensory interventions for autism?



Our lab is called the SenSA Laboratory which stands for Sensory motor Signs of Autism.  In this talk, we will review our findings as well as a review of what we have found in the literature.

Here are the three core messages:

Many but not all children with autism display behaviors consistent with sensory processing difficulties. 

Our current data suggests that sensory processing difficulties by parent report occur in up to 80%, but we do have a very recent dataset, in the last week or so, that suggests that is only in about 60% of children with autism.  Another 20% to 40% might be considered to experience either no sensory impairment or mild difficulties only.  I think that is important to understand and acknowledge when we are thinking about the sorts of treatments that we to offer children with autism. 

Secondly, as Chelsea outlined, the evidence for the effectiveness of sensory-based therapies in autism is mixed, and more rigorous research is needed before we can confidently conclude that sensory-based therapies are effective. 

We have some initial clues from the literature that sensory strategies such as classic Ayres’ Sensory Integration and Qigong massage, to date, showing the highest levels of evidence for support for use. 

Lastly, sensory-based therapy should be applied differentially to children with autism based on the thorough assessment of need and their pattern of sensory behavior. 

When using a parent report tool such as the sensory profile, if we do not see significant difficulties by this report or we do not observe those clinically, then we really need to consider whether a sensory-based strategy is likely to benefit that child. 

What we can say though is that it is likely that sensory strategies may reduce maladaptive behaviors in those children that seem to be displaying sensory difficulties.  We see that, mostly by anecdotal report, the sensory difficulties are highly linked to difficulties in functioning in daily life.  The evidence that Chelsea has supported suggests that those strategies such as Ayres’ Sensory Integration and Qigong massage are effective in managing regulation and attention, and other adaptive behaviors.

It is likely that the Ayres’ Sensory Integration approach, because of its basis at looking at the vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile systems, is likely to benefit children with autism who have motor components.  I am sure some of you will know of children that you have seen or are seeing who do present with a component of motor difficulty, whether it is incoordination or postural challenges, and my contention would be that they are children that are most likely to benefit from an Ayres’ Sensory Integration approach.

The last point that I would say is that it is important to be precise in your intervention plan and documenting what it is you are actually doing.  There are a lot of sensory-based therapies that have been collected under the general term of sensory integration that really are not classic Ayres’ Sensory Integration which I think is problematic, both in terms of providing the highest level of evidence-based practice and also in furthering our understanding through controlled research. 


alison lane

Alison Lane, Ph.D., OTR/L


Dr Alison Lane is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Occupational Therapy at The Ohio State University. Prior to taking up a faculty position, Alison held positions as the director of occupational therapy services at Denver Children’s Hospital and Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, Australia. Alison is particularly interested in developing the evidence base for occupational therapy in pediatric practice and is the principal investigator on research projects related to the contribution of sensory processing and motor function to the emergence and manifestation of autism in young children. As a former manager of clinical services, Alison is committed to supporting practitioners to develop their practice as evidence-based OTs. 

chelsea hetrick

Chelsea Hetrick, B.S.


Chelsea Hetrick is a second year graduate student receiving her Masters of Occupational Therapy at The Ohio State University. She received a Bachelor of Science in Health and Sports Studies at Miami University of Ohio. She recently completed a research specialization in autism, which involved assisting with research in ERP and behavior analysis, completing a literature review of current sensory treatments, and contributing to a literature review of autism endophenotypes. She presented at an Ohio Occupational Therapy Association (OOTA) workshop in October 2011 regarding current sensory integration therapies for children with autism. She has worked with children diagnosed with autism in a variety of settings including volunteering as a summer camp counselor at a play therapy clinic and assisting with individual occupational therapy intervention at an outpatient clinic. 

Related Courses

Foundations for School Readiness: Sensory Regulation and Yoga (Day 1)
Presented by Britt Collins, MS, OTR/L


Britt Collins, MS, OTR/L
Course: #3841Level: Introductory1 Hour
  'Real life examples and interventions'   Read Reviews
This course will provide you tips and tools to integrate sensory regulation, yoga and mindfulness into the classroom for children of all abilities.

Foundations for School Readiness: Visual and Fine Motor Skills (Day 2)
Presented by Emily Dassow, OTR/L


Emily Dassow, OTR/L
Course: #3842Level: Introductory1 Hour
  'I loved all of the treatment ideas! They were so creative and helpful!'   Read Reviews
Participants will learn how fine motor and visual motor skills and development affect students' ability to access curriculum. Practical strategies and treatment interventions will be presented to improve students' function in academic related tasks.

Foundations for School Readiness: Executive Functioning in the Classroom (Day 3)
Presented by Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L


Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L
Course: #3843Level: Introductory1 Hour
  'Very clear and thorough'   Read Reviews
We use executive function skills to manage tasks we complete every day. They help us to decide what to pay attention to as well as help us to manage emotions and regulate behavior. This course helps therapists to understand executive function and learn activities to help children to succeed in the classroom.

Foundations for School Readiness: Early OT Exposure (EOTE), A Mindful OT Screening & Intervention (Day 4)
Presented by Angela Hissong, DEd, OTR/L, CMCP, CMMF, CIR


Angela Hissong, DEd, OTR/L, CMCP, CMMF, CIR
Course: #3844Level: Introductory1 Hour
  'loved the tool'   Read Reviews
Exploration of a screening tool, which links child's engagement with toys and activities to skill transfer in the educational environment. Contemplation of building a portfolio of assessment and intervention for children specifically related to daily occupations in the educational environment while remaining true the concept that children need to play in order to learn.

Foundations for School Readiness: Embedding School Based OT into Elementary (Day 5)
Presented by Melanie Wheeler, OTD, MS, OTR/L


Melanie Wheeler, OTD, MS, OTR/L
Course: #3845Level: Introductory1 Hour
  'The instructor provided excellent practical examples and suggestions for implementation of RTI methods'   Read Reviews
This course will identify practical strategies OTs can use to embed population-based services within an elementary school setting. The strategies will be applied via Response to Intervention (RTI) / Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) frameworks.