Autism Occupational Therapy
Resource Toolkit

Understanding the Impact of Sensory Processing Differences and the Need to Engage in Sensory Advocacy

What is Sensory Processing?

“Sensory processing is the neurological process of how we use the things we sense to make sense of the world around us. Sensory processing impacts every aspect of life. . . sensation is the intersection between mind and body.” – Dr. Virginia Spielmann 

Sensory Processing refers to the body’s sensory system which consists of eight senses: auditory, vision, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, vestibular, proprioception, and interoception. We learn about the world through our senses. The brain typically receives information from these sensory systems, interprets the information, and organizes appropriate responses. However sometimes the sensory information can be confusing, overwhelming, or distorted which can have an impact on our performance in daily activities (e.g. difficulties with paying attention, learning, planning, and doing things in a skilled way). It is important to understand neurodiversity, the individual’s unique sensory profile, and how we all adapt differently. Strategies such as sensory diet activities and creating a sensory-safe environments can help support and nourish an individual’s sensory processing differences.

 This section contains resources that describe the eight senses, sensory processing and autism, and different approaches to support sensory preferences. While going through these resources, please feel free to suggest a resource that you think may be helpful for this section. 

What are the Eight Senses?

The STAR Institute provides a detailed overview including the brain structures for each of the 8 sensory systems.

This toolkit co-developed by Moira Pena, OT, Dr. Fahkri Shafai, Phd and autistic advocate Elsbeth Dodman, provides information on the 8 sensory systems and discusses how to become a sensory detective to best support autistic people.

Sensory Processing and Autism

Dr. Virginia Spielman,PhD, MSOT, Director of the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing, explains what sensory processing and integration are and how our understanding of their integral role in development has shifted. She outlines theoretical model types and describes the importance supporting sensory health in autistic people. She concludes by providing recommendations for intervention and alternatives to the classic linear model of the autism spectrum.

Learn about sensory features associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

This webinar discusses the definition of ASD and Sensory Processing Disorder, the sensory classifications, physiologic symptoms, efficacy of OT, and the STAR treatment model.

This paper aims at compiling articles that will serve as a guide for occupational therapists using a sensory integrative approach.

Article discusses sensory processing differences in autistic children, sensory diets and the need for evidence-based interventions.

Dr. Virginia Spielmann uses an occupational therapy lens to explain the relationship between sensory processing differences and anxiety.

This essay is adapted from the book Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You by Jenara Nerenberg. She provides some tips on how to deal with sensory overload and how to embrace neurodivergence.

Supporting Sensory Processing Differences - At Home

This workshop provides information on the different sensory systems and the neuroscience behind sensory processing differences. It also provide practical evidence-based strategies for families to try at home and to support sensory processing differences.

Supporting Sensory Processing Differences - At School

Occupational therapists Carrie Schmitt and Colleen Whiting discuss an article highlighting a study aimed at capturing parent and teacher perspectives on how sensory differences affect learning within the school contextt. This conversation covers topics such as: impact of distance learning, sensory profiles mismatches, sense of agency, and what specific strategies work to support students with sensory processing differences. Parents and school-based therapists alike will benefit from this discussion.

A lived experience account by an autistic advocate describes the importance of prioritizing trust and building respectful relationships with autistic students as well as strategies teachers can use to positively impact their relationships with autistic students.

The Sensory Diet Approach

“A ‘sensory diet’ or ‘sensory lifestyle’ is a group of sensory activities that are personalized for the individual with sensory differences and specifically designed to ensure that they are receiving the sensory input their bodies need every day. The purpose of the sensory diet is to enable the development of skills that will support arousal, attention, self-regulation, and balance a person’s sensory reactions.” – AIDE Canada

What is a Sensory Diet?

Alisha Grogon (OT) explains what is a sensory diet, when to use it, and how it works. Resource links are provided on specific sensory diet activities.

Learn about sensory diets, examples of sensory activities for each sensory system, ideas for classroom accommodations, and sensory diet activities for home.

Occupational therapist Lindsey Biel provides tips for successfully supporting children and teens who struggle with sensory discomfort and pain. This webinar covers: definition of sensory processing, sensory modulation profiles, stimming, meltdowns, sensory havens, sensory diets, sensory opportunities for teenagers, self-care skills, sensory equipment, recommended activities and resource links.

Moira Peña, BScOT, MOT, OT Reg (Ont.), discusses sensory processing strategies for home. She describes how atypical sensory processing affects lived experiences of individuals with autism and outlines three sensory profiles. Peña dives into the sensory diet approach noting short- and long-term goals and the importance of the “power senses.” She provides examples of strategic sensory schedules and environmental adaptations and emphasizes the importance of co-regulating and leisure activities. Peña celebrates individual differences in autism and suggests that productive failures are part of the process.

Sensory Diet Activity Ideas

This handout goes through the eight sensory systems and provides examples of sensory tools, items, and furniture linked to these eight systems to promote self-regulation in a sensory room.

Learn about proprioceptive input, signs of proprioceptive challenges, a variety of proprioceptive input activities that are beneficial for the sensory system, self-and-emotional regulation, and body awareness.

A short video clip showing a variety of sensory motor activities that can be done with a hoola hoop.

Learn about 7 sensory morning routines that are full of sensory activities to help a child achieve a balanced and regulated sensory system. The examples provided range for babies to teens and are broken down for sensory seekers vs avoiders.

Sensory circuits have evolved from the sensory diet concept. Sensory circuits function as a gym circuit to support a child’s individual arousal needs. Learn some practical examples of sensory circuits and school and home.

21 easy sensory activities for toddlers that are fun, keeps them busy and helps them develop.

A guide to building individualized, dynamic, sensory rich schedules. Daily schedules should have a combination of alerting, organizing, and calming strategies throughout the day.

Great explanation on the sensory diet and what it looks like when families take an intuitive approach to integrating sensory activities into their daily routine. It’s important to be flexible and work with where the child is at, understand what they need at any point in time, and build in helpful sensory activities in the child’s daily routine.

Creating sensory strategies that are a fit for teens and older children.

Introductory Brain Highways video on the effects of poor sensory integration, particularly proprioception.

Introductory video on the effects of a poorly integrated vestibular system.

A one page handout describing auditory avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for auditory activities.

A one page handout describing proprioceptive avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for proprioceptive activities.

A one page handout describing visual avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for visual activities.

A one page handout describing olfactory avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for olfactory activities.

A one page handout describing oral avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for oral activities.

A one page handout describing tactile avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for tactile activities. Note: typo under tactile seeking, should read as “Likes hair brushing, washing, or drying”.

A one page handout describing vestibular avoiding and seeking behaviours and some suggestions for vestibular activities.

A very short animation about the touch system, how it helps development and some sensory ideas/games to help.

Helpful Apps

Provides 200 sensory activities for children to take breaks throughout the day. Features: customizable, different environments (ex. school, home), select feeling, sensory system selection, visual activity list, and timer. *Set up required by parent/caregiver.

Websites for Sensory Tools/ Equipment

This resource accompanies the Make Your Own Sensory Room Handout and provides a purchase options list for the mentioned sensory tools. 

Parents, teachers, and therapists can find sensory, fine and gross motor, attention, self-regulation and autism tools.

Sensory tools and educational games for all

Chewy tubes provide calming sensory input and also help develop oral motor skills

Resources for sport, recreation, special needs and more

High-quality, sensory-style compression garments which are fast gaining a reputation for helping to calm the sensory system of Autistic children and adults

The OTvest™ provides a sense of calm and comfort for those with sensory processing disorder.

Sensory chewelry to replace inappropriate chewing behaviour and to provide potential regulating effects for the sensory system.

Sensory friendly clothing e.g. compression clothing, underwear, socks, anit-chafe bathing suits, face mask strategies

Sensory integration products, multi-sensory environment products

Learn about the benefits of noise cancelling headphones, factors (and pros/cons) to consider when choosing a particular type of headphone, and helpful resource links to suggested products.

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