The Difference Between Sensory Play and Ayres Sensory Integration Therapy

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

Often these two terms are used mistakenly and in some confusion so hopefully this article will help clear up and explain how different they really are. 

People often assume that by using equipment intended to aid sensory integration that they are then receiving Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) therapy – but that’s not the case, and the difference is all in how the equipment is used. 

What is the difference between sensory play and sensory integration therapy?

Well, by using a swing you might be experiencing sensory play, but not sensory integration therapy. The use of a swing becomes therapy when an occupational therapist is involved to use it under the guiding principles of sensory integration theories and the ASI fidelity measure. It’s all about the skill the therapist employs to do many different things with the individual and equipment, and how that swing, for example, can be used for different clients and to support different objectives. It’s not just a case of sitting on the swing and playing.

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 more integrated, coordinated and emotionally regulated. 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: 

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

So, where does sensory play come into it all?

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.

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. 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 and specific practices with clinical reasoning and a therapist’s wide-ranging expertise to target specific sensory processing and integration difficulties.

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