The Autism Society Event and Education Recordings Archive

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5584 The Role of Sensory Processing In the Acquisition of Self-Care Skills [ASHA Session]

Friday, July 8, 2011: 1:15 PM-2:30 PM
Tallahassee 123 (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)
Research has established that many children with autism may present with sensory processing problems. These problems can include decreased sensory modulation to various sensory stimuli or decreased sensory motor integration involved in self-care skills. This presentation will present evidence of the connection between self-care skills and sensory processing, and the possible impact on an individual’s self-care independence. Methods of analysis from a sensory perspective and strategies to make self-care methods more “sensory friendly” are included. Evidence exists in the literature that supports the existence of atypical sensory responses in individuals with autism ( Baranek, Boyd, Poe, David, & Watson, 2007;Ben-Sassoon et al. 2007; Kientz & Dunn,1998;Provost et al, 2009;Watling, 2001) and that these responses can be partially explained by recent neuroscience research as a dysfunction in processing of sensory stimuli (Schoen & Miller ,2008; Schaaf ,2003). In addition, there is evidence which  links sensory processing abilities and the development of functional skills(Hilton et al. ,2007; Jasmin et al.,2009;Tomchek & Dunn, 2007). However, each child with autism presents with distinctive patterns of performance. “Future ASD research demands a greater focus on individual differences instead of the common comparisons between averages derived from groups of individuals with ASD and typically-developed individuals.” (Autism Speaks, November, 2010) Occupational therapists are uniquely qualified to treat individuals with autism as they learn the skills that will enable them to participate in life.

The primary role of the occupational therapist is to enable occupation; i.e. meaningful activities that allow an individual to function successfully within an environmental context (Christiansen & Baum, 1991). The skills involved in self-care are complex in nature and require cognition, social interaction, sensory processing, motor praxis, executive function (sequence and memory), and emotional and attentional regulation. Using a Person-Environment-Occupation-Performance Model (Law et al., 1996) the occupational therapist can assess the interrelationships of the client factors, environmental context, and performance abilities of an individual to determine the impact on occupational performance skills such as self-care skills, play, and social participation. A variety of  evidence based practices may be combined to provide intervention which may address the client’s needs by remediating weaknesses in client skills, adapting or modifying the environment, or adapting and modifying the occupation. Self-care is one important occupation “that allows an individual to meet the standard for personal independence” (Fisher, 1997). The skills of eating, dressing, and toileting are the most basic of skills necessary for independence in the environment. Focusing on the development of these skills at all ages can be an important factor in the success of any individual. This is especially true for an individual with autism.

This presentation will discuss the sensory, cognitive, and motor components necessary for the acquisition of self care skills. Evidence will be presented that substantiates the relationship between the sensory processing abilities of a child with autism and the ability to learn, acquire, and become independent in self care skills. Skills will be analyzed using both developmental progression and developmental acquisitional frameworks to delineate elements of the self care process.

With a firm foundation of understanding  of self care skills from many perspectives, the attendees will consider the unique and varying array of skills which an individual with autism could bring to the task of learning self care skills. Using a case study format, the attendees will examine the patterns of sensory processing which impact performance of self care and how to differentiate sensory based responses and behavioral responses frequently seen in individuals with autism. The attendees will also examine the sensory motor components of self care tasks essential for organization and completion. Finally, the presentation will include strategies for improving sensory processing, methods for adapting the environment, and methods of modifying the occupation to accommodate for the individual’s unique set of skills.  During this session, the attendees will explore practical methods to respect, address, and support the sensory preferences of an individual with autism at home, school, and in the community.


Learning Objectives:

  • Attendees will understand the relationship of sensory processing and self care skills in children with autism.
  • Attendees will be able to analyze self care skills from a sensory processing prospective.
  • Attendees will learn strategies for modifying the instruction in self care skills to individuals sensory processing ability.
  • Attendees will practice a problem solving method on presented case studies

Content Area: Sensory Processing


Sonia Kay, Ph.D., OTR/L
Assistant Professor
Nova Southeastern University

Dr. Kay has practiced as a pediatric occupational therapist for the past 30 years. Her interest in effective strategies for the treatment of individuals with autism grew from her interaction with families in a clinical and school-based practice. Further study and research resulted in family friendly, effective occupational therapy interventions.