Sensory Integration

What is Sensory Integration?

Dr. A. Jean Ayres defined sensory integration (SI) as “the organization of sensory input for use” (Ayers, 1979, p.184).  Our senses give us information about our body and the environment around us through our sensory systems. Sensory systems include sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, movement, gravity, and position.

We organize sensory inputs through our nervous system which gives meaning to our experiences. Experiences result from interaction between the individual and their environment. The nervous system changes as a result of our experiences. Individuals who successfully register and process sensory inputs are able to sift through the incoming information and select what is most important. The process of successfully sifting through sensory inputs allows us to respond to the situation we are experiencing in a meaningful and purposeful manner, also referred to as an “adaptive response”. Foundations of socialization and learning are reliant on adaptive responses.

Sensory integration occurs throughout child development and begins in the prenatal state (in the womb) through the sensation of movement. Following birth, the child experiences touch, gravity and movement, muscle and joint sensations, sight, sound, smell, and taste. As the child becomes older they continue to experience situations rich in sensory information and this begins to form meaning when properly organized. The ability to organize sensory inputs into meaningful information allows for higher-level skill development.

The terms sensory integration dysfunction and sensory processing disorder are often used interchangeably. SID or SPD is when the brain does not accurately process and interpret sensory inputs and therefore emotional, attentional, motor, or other responses are negatively affected.

The belief that a child will outgrow his or her problem may delay them from getting professional help at an age when their brain is most able to change and do the most good. Common functional concerns may include hyperactivity or distractibility, behavioral problems, social problems, delayed speech, muscle tone and coordination problems, or learning difficulties at school. These are considered to be the end products of poor sensory integration or poor sensory processing.

SPD Subtypes (As Defined by Winnie Dunn):

Sensory Modulation Disorder is suspected when a child shows symptoms with frequency, intensity, and duration.

  • Over–responsivity means the child responds more frequently than his peers.
  • Under– responsivity means the child responds less frequently than his peers.
  • Sensory Seeking/Craving means your child will add sensation to all tasks; i.e. standing while eating, falling to the ground or bumping into objects frequently during play

Sensory Discrimination Disorder is when a child has difficulty understanding the qualities or aspects of sensory information.

Sensory Based Motor Disorder is when a child may have difficulty sequencing new motor actions and appear clumsy or demonstrate decreased endurance.

  •  Praxis is when a child experiences a deficit in the ability to plan, sequence & execute novel or unfamiliar actions.
  • Postural Disorder is when a child has problems with quality of control or stabilization of the body during movement or at rest.

SID/SPD may be diagnosed in combination with other developmental, neurological, psychosocial, or chromosomal conditions. SI principles are used with a variety of developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, Fragile X Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, hearing impairment, visual impairment, mental retardation, premature birth, failure to thrive, and prenatal drug exposure.

Occupational therapists trained in the use of sensory integration assess the individual’s ability to detect or register, process, and interpret sensory information. Once specific areas of difficulty are determined intervention focuses on a child’s participation in meaningful activities.

Intervention principles include child-directed activities within the context of play given the “just-right challenge” so that the child may make an adaptive response. This requires the therapist to monitor the sensory environment and tap into the child’s intrinsic motivation and active participation in a task. The end result is successful engagement in age-appropriate occupations of play, learning, socialization, and self-help skills.