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Physical Therapy and Sensory Skills Training

Tammy Reynolds, B.A., C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Sometimes the individualized education plan (IEP) specifies certain therapies. Physical therapy is one such therapy. Intellectual capacity is highly influenced by the ability to receive and correctly interpret sensory data. We receive this data from our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. Sensory integration is a natural process used by the body to interpret sensory information. Normally, the various senses work together in unison. This helps people navigate their surroundings. However, some children with intellectual disabilities have difficulty interpreting, integrating, and coordinating sensory input. Sensory integration activities help these children strengthen these abilities.

teacher and childThere are two different sorts of sensory problems. Some children have hyperactive (overactive) systems. These children have difficulty blocking out signals that should be ignored. In response to this overactive system, they avoid motion activities like climbing stairs. They may also be very prone to motion sickness. They may seek support from others while walking.

Other children have hypoactive (underactive) systems. These children have difficulty attending to signals that should be heeded. Children with hypoactive sensory systems may actively seek out motion. They may enjoy swinging and climbing activities, and do not become dizzy after spinning.

Sensory integration activities address children's sensory needs by either lessening or amplifying the intensity of the sensory stimulation they receive. Most sensory integration activities work with children's vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile sensory systems. These are described below.

The vestibular sensory system enables us to stand and coordinate movement. It involves sensory input from vision and from sensory organs in the inner ear. Activities that stimulate the vestibular system involve movement. Swinging, jumping, and spinning are good examples. A physical therapist working with hypoactive children might engage them in structured movement exercises. This meets their sensory needs within socially acceptable boundaries.

The proprioceptive sensory system provides information about the body's positioning. Proprioceptive feedback helps people coordinate fine motor activities. Examples include coloring within lines or buttoning a shirt. It also helps with motor planning. This refers to the ability to coordinate different motor tasks to complete an activity. Activities that stimulate the proprioceptive system include deep pressure, hugging, and climbing.

Not all children with intellectual disabilities require physical therapy. Physical therapy may be conducted in schools, homes, or institutions. Sometimes children go to specialized physical therapy facilities. Physical therapy promotes the development of gross motor skills required for everyday activities. It also increases flexibility and stimulates learning abilities through sensory integration activities.

The underlying condition that caused the intellectual disability determines whether physical therapy is needed. For example, the Fragile X syndrome is often accompanied by sensory challenges. People with Fragile X are easily distracted by noises or smells. People with Cockayne syndrome may need physical therapy to limit joint contractions that interfere with walking. People with Prader-Willie syndrome have poor muscle tone. Physical therapy helps to correct this.

In addition to physical therapy, an IEP may also include speech therapy and occupational therapy. These types of therapies are discussed in the next section.