Sensory integration is the automatic process in which our brain registers sensory information from our five senses, as well as our internal senses of body position and movement. The brain reacts to this information with an appropriate adaptive response. For example, when we go outside on a sunny day, we either squint or put on sunglasses. The stimulus in this example is the sun and our eyes are the “sense” which detects the stimulus. Our brain processes this information by organizing and planning a response. This is the way typical sensory integration operates.
Most of the time, we do not think about our responses to various stimuli because our brains produce quick responses. Think about your commute to work. For those of us who take the subway in the morning, our bodies already have an “internal map” of where to go once underground; therefore it’s familiar and automatic.
Think about a trip to an amusement park. Typically, we know the amount and intensity of movement our bodies can handle before we may get motion sickness. Our brain registers this information and tells our body that we have had enough movement from roller coasters or that we can and want to go on more rides.
Imagine you are sitting in a boring lecture. Some of us can coast through this without a problem. Others need stimulation to keep our attention on task and will use compensatory strategies such as chewing gum, drinking water or biting a pen to help us do so.
A child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) has sensory systems that are not functioning optimally. These children do not have the ability to make the types of connections such as the ones discussed above. They have difficulty interpreting one or more of their senses. The senses we are referring to include our basic five senses; vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. There are two more senses that may be unfamiliar to you. These senses include our vestibular sense (our sense of gravity and movement which is stimulated by change in head position) and our proprioceptive sense (tells us where our body position is in space). The vestibular and proprioceptive senses coupled with the tactile sense (sense of touch) are often referred to as the power systems, as these three systems are the most essential in early development.
Does my child need Sensory Integration Therapy?
Here are some signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD):
- Afraid of movement or constantly moving too much
- Overly sensitive or under-reactive to touch, smells, tastes, textures, temperatures in food, sights or sounds
- Easily distracted
- Poor eye contact
- An activity level that is too high or too low
- Impulsive; lacking in self control, poor safety awareness
- Inability to unwind or self calm
- Social and/or emotional problems, frequent tantrums
- Physical clumsiness, poor balance
- Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
- Delays in speech and language development
- Delays in motor skills and difficulty planning new movements