Virginia Spielman, 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 of sensory health and understanding in autistic lived experiences across a lifetime. She concludes by providing recommendations for intervention and alternatives to the classic linear model of the autism spectrum.

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In this presentation 

7:00 – Other sensory systems explained
18:15 – Miller Model of Function
28:00 – Miller Model of Dysfunction
41:21 – Intervention Recommendations
37:27 – Alternatives to linear autism spectrum model

Presentation summary

Sensory processing (SP) is “the neurological process of how we use the things we sense to make sense of the world around us.” (2:50). Human beings have eight sensory systems, of which five are generally taught and discussed (4:33): Visual (looking), Gustatory (tasting), Olfactory (smelling), Tactile (touching), Auditory (hearing), Vestibular (movement) (7:56), Proprioceptive (muscle & joint sensation) (10:10), and Interoceptive (internal organ sensation) (12:00). These sensory systems are integral to human development in utero and during the first months after birth (13:00).
Through sensory processing integration (SI), human beings learn to identify what we feel and give meaning to those feelings – it is “how we learn to be in the world” (13:49). Successful integration of the eight sensory systems is paramount to the proper development of motor skills and control and interpersonal, academic, and vocational capabilities (Schoen et al, 2019). (14:00) 
There are two theoretical model types for understanding sensory processing and integration:
  • Functional models (14:25) focus on the integration of senses to produce end results (15:45) i.e. concentration, self-control, and self-confidence, adaptive responses, etc.
  • Dysfunctional models (27:45) focus on the responsivity of sensory systems and categorize that responsivity into disorders, i.e. Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (33:35), Sensory Discrimination Disorder (32:35), and Sensory Modulation Disorder (30:45).
Contemporary neuroscience has enhanced understanding of how sensory systems and differences in SP and SI affect developmental processes before and after birth. This has transformed the definition of SP and SI in autism from something peripheral – only impacting some people – to being accepted as a core characteristic of ASD that impacts lived experiences across an individual’s lifetime (25:00). This discourse adjustment has huge implications for developing and treating SP and SI issues and provides a more inclusive therapeutic goal based on the quality of life.
Eudaimonic well-being or flourishing (35:00) has become the focus of theoretical models and most therapy types. This ideal aims to increase the quality of life for individuals with SP and SI issues through the personal application of sensory therapy techniques. The presenter discusses how this aim has transformed the idea of an autism “spectrum” (37:27) from something very linear to something more dimensional and questions how to map SP and SI areas using both dysfunctional and functional model ideas (38:35). She concludes by describing the importance of sensory well-being as, “… the bridge between physical and mental health.” (40:40)

About the speaker:

Virginia Spielmann, MSOT is a well-travelled speaker, coach and educator on topics including sensory integration, DIR/Floortime, child development and infant mental health. She has conducted trainings in Kenya, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the USA and leads workshops at international conferences. Virginia is a founder and former Clinical Director of SPOT (Speech, Physical, and Occupational Therapy) Interdisciplinary Children’s Therapy Center in Hong Kong, where she led a large and widely respected inter-disciplinary team. Virginia is the Executive Director of STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder in Greenwood Village Colorado. STAR is a global leader in education, treatment and research for sensory processing through the lifespan.

Virginia obtained her BSc in Occupational Therapy in Oxford England (2002) and her Masters in Occupational Therapy from Mount Mary University, Milwaukee (2018). She is a DIR/Floortime Training Leader and Expert and clinical consultant for the Interdisciplinary Council for Development and Learning (ICDL). Her extensive pediatric experience includes children on the autism spectrum, as well as those with Sensory Processing Disorder, infant mental health issues, children from adopted families and those who have experienced developmental trauma.

Virginia has considerable post-graduate training, she is certified on the SIPT and is currently completing her Ph.D. in Infant and Early Childhood Development with an emphasis on mental health, with Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara.

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