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What is Sensory Integration

Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education

Sensory integration is a child’s ability to feel, understand, and organize sensory information from his body and his environment. Basically, sensory integration sorts, orders, and puts all individual sensory inputs together into a whole-brain function. When sensory functions are balanced, body movements are highly adaptive, learning is easy, and “good” behavior is a natural outcome.

Sensory integration is also reflected in a child’s development, learning, and feelings about himself. The connection between sensory integration and social and emotional development should not be underestimated! How a child integrates through the sensory systems provides a basis for his reality. Not your reality, not my reality, his reality—and his unique perspective on the world around him.

Our senses give us information about the physical conditions of our bodies and the environment around us. Sensations flow into the brain, like streams flowing into a lake. Countless bits of sensory information enter into our brains every moment…the brain locates, sorts, and orders sensations—somewhat as a traffic light directs moving cars in the right direction. When sensations flow in a well-organized or integrated manner, the brain can use those sensations to form perceptions, behaviors, and learning. When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush-hour traffic jam. So, it is sensory integration that attempts to “put it all together” and that helps us make sense of who we are and the world around us.

Sensory processing

Sensations are the way that we take in information from our environment (internally and externally) and then process them to make sense of what is going on in us and around us. What makes sensory processing so complex is that it is not an all or nothing “thing.” No one is really perfect at sensory processing, and most people have some ability to integrate through at least some of their senses. An example of someone who might be considered to possess good sensory processing might be a professional basketball player. An example of someone who might be considered to possess poor sensory processing might be an individual with autism. Basically, we are looking at a sensory integration “spectrum”—sensory processing along a continuum. To help people gain a better understanding of how sensory input is processed, professionals often break sensory processing down into different components; for example, sensory registration, sensory modulation, and sensory response.

The following provides a brief look at a few examples of behaviors you might see in a child experiencing difficulties with sensory processing.

  • Difficulties with sensory registration: may appear under-reactive to movement or touch, can appear lethargic, may exhibit a delayed response to sensory input. Or may appear over-reactive to movement or touch, may exhibit a heightened response to sensory input.

  • Difficulties with sensory modulation: may be upset with changes in routine, have a high level of distractibility, have a high activity level, experience difficulty with transitions, or may appear “detached”, “withdrawn” or “shutdown”.

  • Difficulties with sensory responses or “integration”: may have problems with motor planning, may have a poor quality of motor responses (especially controlled motor responses and/or “protective” responses), may have poor body awareness, may have trouble coordinating the two sides of the body.

Some professionals include sensory defensiveness when addressing some of the common sensory processing problems. A child showing sensory defensiveness may resist or even strongly refuse certain types of activities or touch, may appear to be very emotionally labile or “fragile,” may be considered to have “odd” or “unusual” eating habits, or be considered a “picky eater” or a “difficult” child at meals. In other theories, sensory processing has been broken down into different components. For our purposes, we prefer to break down sensory processing into the following components:

  • registration of sensory input

  • orientation to sensory input

  • interpretation of sensory input

  • organization of a response to the sensory input

  • execution of response.

It is important to understand that these components in sensory processing will be influenced by several other factors, including the modality (the channel it took), the intensity (how strong it was), the duration (how long it lasts), and the location (where it occurred) of the sensory input.

Understanding the role and importance of sensory processing can become increasingly important as you begin to take a closer look at the behavior of your child, with perhaps a different approach to interpreting it.

Two examples:

A 7th grader, Mohammed, is standing in line waiting for a turn at the snack stand after football practice when another student accidentally brushes his shoulder (sensory registration). Now, Mohammed has to figure out where on his body this sensation came from (orientation), then decide what it was—an accidental brush, a light tap, hit, punch, or stab (interpretation). Mohammed perceives this sensory input as an accidental brush and pauses to glance behind him (organization of a response). Mohammed then continues to wait for his turn (execution of a response).

A 7th grader, Tariq, is standing in line waiting for a turn at the snack stand after football practice when another student accidentally brushes his shoulder (sensory registration). Now, Tariq has to figure out where on his body this sensation came from (orientation) and then decide what it was…accidental brush, a light tap, hit, punch, or stab (interpretation). Tariq perceives this sensory input as a hard punch in the middle of his back. So, Tariq quickly spins around with a clenched fist in the air (organization of a response). Tariq loudly and furiously threatens to find the kid who punched him and punch him back (execution of a response).

Sensory integration is what turns sensation into perception. Perception defines reality to an individual! Again, sensory integration defines reality, not your reality, not our reality, his reality—and his unique perspective on the world around him. The sensory systems Most people are familiar with the five senses:

  • touch (or tactile)

  • smell (or olfactory)

  • taste (or gustatory)

  • hearing (or auditory)

  • seeing (or visual).

However, some people remain unfamiliar with the sensory systems: tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive. Not only is it critical that these sensory systems function properly, but also that they work well together. If the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems cannot function efficiently, either separately or together, it directly affects a child’s ability to interact successfully within him or herself, with others, and in his or her surroundings.

The tactile system

The tactile system is our sense of touch. This system allows us to feel hot/cold, sharp/dull, rough/smooth. The tactile system allows us to find (discriminate) objects by touch (feeling around in an overloaded purse for a set of keys). This information also includes light touch, pain, and texture and pressure. To better understand this, hold out your hand with your palm facing the floor and tickle the back of your hand. Now, turn your hand over and tickle the palm side. Notice a difference in your sense of touch? For most people the palm has a much higher degree of sensitivity to touch.

The vestibular system

The vestibular system coordinates the movement of the eyes, head, and body through space and body movement. The vestibular system allows us to balance, swing on a swing, coordinate the two sides of our body, and catch ourselves when we stumble. Just for fun, stand up, close your eyes, spin quickly three times in one direction, three times in the other direction, keep your eyes closed, and try to stand on one foot. That’s your vestibular system at work!

The proprioceptive system

The proprioceptive system uses unconscious information from the muscles and joints to give awareness of body position. It is the feedback from muscles and joints that allow us to stand without falling, use a pencil or bounce a basketball. An example of this is to put your arm out to the side and turn your head in the opposite direction. Now bend your arm. How do you know your arm is moving? You can’t see it because your head is turned the other way. You can’t taste it, smell it, hear it, or touch it. You know because the sensations from your muscles and joints are giving you the information.

We believe that it is imperative to have an understanding of how sensory integration is supposed to work—how it is supposed to “look” when all the systems are up and running and working well together, in order to recognize and begin to identify the behaviors and symptoms that may indicate sensory dysfunction in your child.

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah is an educational psychologist and special educational specialist. She holds an Ed.D in both educational psychology and special education. She has over 25 years experience working with children with different educational, intellectual, and emotional challenges.

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