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Exploring occupational therapy with adults with intellectual disabilities and sensory processing challenges within assessment and treatment units

People with intellectual disabilities are more likely than the general population to have difficulties processing sensory information.  This is particularly true for individuals with intellectual disabilities who are also Autistic.  Sensory processing difficulties are of interest to occupational therapists as they have been found to impact on participation in daily activities and quality of life.

When people are admitted to an Assessment and Treatment Unit, assessment is often carried out around their sensory processing needs as part of a comprehensive occupational therapy assessment.  The evidence base around sensory processing assessments and interventions for people with intellectual disabilities is limited however, and there is a lack of robust evidence to guide occupational therapists working in this area.  Quality intervention research is therefore required.

Helen Justice used a Delphi approach to create preliminary evidence by gathering experienced occupational therapists’ views on practice.  The research sought to establish important elements of practice when using sensory integration-informed approaches with adults with intellectual disabilities admitted to acute Assessment and Treatment Units.  

13 occupational therapists from the UK and Ireland participated in a series of online surveys and were asked which sensory processing assessments, treatments, facilities, equipment and training they felt were important in this setting. Survey items were rated for importance and participants could also provide comments if they wished.

The Delphi panel were in strong agreement regarding many elements of practice they felt were important for use in acute Assessment and Treatment Units and a list of important practice items was created.  

Two themes were identified from participant comments: “Complexity” and “Pragmatism vs. Ideal World”.  The themes highlighted challenges to practice in this clinical area and the complex clinical reasoning used to overcome these.  

The research was completed as part of an NIHR-funded MRes in Clinical Research at University of Brighton.


A list of items agreed as important for practice in this field can be downloaded below (this is also referred to in the 2021 paper)

Justice, HHaines, D, Wright, J (2021) Occupational therapy for adults with intellectual disabilities and sensory processing challenges: Exploring practice within acute assessment and treatment units. Irish Journal of Occupational Therapy 48(1) 28-35

Findings from this study have also been shared at the following conferences:

  • IASSIDD World Congress, Glasgow, August 2019
  • European Sensory Integration Congress, Vienna, June 2017
  • Royal College of Occupational Therapists Specialist Section - People with Learning Disabilities Annual Conference, London, October 2017
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