What is Sensory Integration ?
Sensory integration is a theory and a therapy approach developed in the 1960s by Dr A. Jean Ayres, an American occupational therapist and neuroscientist. She explored the association between sensory processing and the problems children encounter in every day life with learning, development, emotions and behaviours.
Sensory integration is the neurological process of organising the information we get from our bodies and the world around us for use in every day life. This occurs in all of us, all day long without us being aware of it. The main task of our central nervous system is to integrate the senses, our brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. Our senses (movement, touch, body position, sight, taste, hearing and smell) give us information from our body and the world around us. Sensory integration is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of that information. This ‘integration’ or processing allows us to make sense of the world around us and function well within it. It allows us to respond to the situation we are experiencing in a purposeful manner and lays the foundations for academic learning and social behaviour.(back to top)
Our senses give us the information we need to function in the world. We are familiar with the five senses of touch, sight, taste, hearing and smell which respond to information from outside our bodies. We also sense information that we are less familiar with from within our bodies about movement and body position. Dr Ayres highlighted the importance of three sensory systems that provide us with the sense of ourselves in the world:
The tactile sense processes information about touch, and is located in the skin and mouth. It has both protective and discovery functions. It lets us know when we touch something that is dangerous or threatening. It also allows us to find out and discover the world by providing us with information about the characteristics of what we are touching.The tactile sense is vital in making us feel safe in the world and being able to bond with others so that we can develop socially and emotionally.
The body position or proprioceptive sense is located in our muscles and joints.It provides us with information about where are body parts are in space and how they are moving. It is the proprioceptive sense that tells us where are hands are moving without looking at them. It provides us with a clear map of how our body is put together.
The movement or vestibular sense is located in our inner ear. It provides us with information about gravity, balance and movement. It tells us whether we are moving, how fast and in what direction. It provides us with the sense of safety from knowing that our feet firmly placed on the ground.
Touch, movement and body position are fundamental in providing us with a sense of ourselves in the world. The senses never work in isolation. Each sense works with the other senses to give us a picture of ourselves and the world around us.(back to top)
What is Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction?
Sensory Processing Disorder is the most recent term used for a condition that was first recognised in the 1960s by Dr A. Jean Ayres. It was originally called sensory integration dysfunction or sensory integration disorder. Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction interferes with the way children process the sensations coming from their body and the world around them. It interferes with learning, playing, and communicating with others.
Most of us are born with the ability to constantly manage sensory messages and organise them into the right, organised response or behaviour. For children with Sensory Processing Disorder the sensory signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses. This leads to disruption in the child’s daily activities, learning, emotional state and social interactions.
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction may present with some of the following difficulties:
- Avoids touch or being touched by objects and people
- Has difficulty standing in line or close to other people
- Dislikes having hair, fingernails or toenails cut
- Avoidance of certain textures
- Touches people and objects to the point of irritating others
- Seeks out all kinds of movement and this interferes with daily routines (eg can’t sit still, fidgets)
- Spins/twirls self frequently throughout the day
- Takes excessive risks during play
- Fear of heights and movement
- Distress with certain sounds
- Sensitivity to light
- Aversion to certain smells and tastes
- Disregard of sudden or loud sounds
- Unaware of pain
- Unaware of body sensations such as hunger, hot or cold
- Lack of attention to environment, persons or things
- Has coordination problems
- Has difficulty planning motor tasks
Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction is a surprisingly common problem with at least 5% of the population being affected. It is a hidden condition which is often poorly understood. It can occur in children who have no medical diagnosis or it may coexist with other conditions such as:
- Autistic Spectrum Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Cerebral Palsy
- Dyslexia (Specific Learning Difficulties)
- Dyspraxia/Developmental Coordination Disorder
- Fragile X Syndrome
Identifying Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction
In order to identify a Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction the child’s behaviours need to be carefully analysed. A clear picture needs to be formed on how the child responds to sensory information. This is done through observing the child’s behaviour and collecting information from parents and school through interviews and sensory questionnaires. The Sensory Profile, written by Winnie Dunn, is a standard questionnaire for collecting information about a child’s sensory processing abilities. This information is then used to determine how the child processes sensory information.
It is important to analyse the impact sensory processing problems have on the child’s ability to function in everyday life and activities. Standardised assessment and observations of the child are used to assess the child’s skill and performance.
All the assessment information is carefully analysed and a profile is provided of the child’s sensory processing abilities.
Evaluation of a child should be carried out by a qualified physiotherapist, occupational therapist or speech and language therapist who has received recognised post-graduate training in sensory integration theory and intervention. In the UK and Ireland recognised courses are provided by Sensory Integration Network UK and Ireland with accreditation at Masters Level by Ulster University (previously provided by Cardiff University).
For children with Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction an intervention programme using sensory integration therapy may be suggested.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Therapy involving therapeutic sensory experiences can be more effective than drugs, psychological analysis, or rewards and punishment in helping the brain and body to develop optimally.
Early intervention is advisable for treating these problems before they interfere with the child’s learning and behaviour. Children respond well to early intervention when their brains are developing rapidly and their neurological systems are most able to change.
Therapy using sensory integration as a frame of reference focuses on the child and their sensory needs. Most children tend to seek out those sensory experiences that are most beneficial to their development. The child will be guided by the therapist through activities that challenge their ability to respond appropriately to sensory input. Therapy is grounded in play and is fun for the child. Training of specific skills is not the focus of the therapy, instead the focus is on the underlying sensory processing problems that prevents the child from carrying out a skill successfully.
Sensory integration intervention programmes may consist of:
- Individual therapy
- Home programmes/sensory diets
- Environmental modifications
- Education to child, family and school
- Consultation to family, school and others
What Parents Can Do
If you think your child may have a Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction the first thing you can do is to seek professional help. Ensure the therapist you choose has completed recognised post-graduate training in sensory integration theory and intervention. In the UK and Ireland recognised courses are provided by Sensory Integration Network UK and Ireland with accreditation at Masters Level by Ulster University (previously provided by Cardiff University). As a minimum requirement they should have attended and completed Module 1and Module 2/3. In addition, therapists should have had clinical experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor. More information can be found from the Sensory Integration Network UK and Ireland. Check out our qualifications here.
Early identification is very important as your child will probably not grow out of their problems without help.Early intervention while your child is still young gives them the best opportunity to cope with demands of school and every day life.
In addition to seeking professional help, you can make a huge difference in helping your child develop better sensory processing skills.There are a number of things you can do to support and help your child:
Recognise the Problem
As parents you notice when things do not seem to be quite right with your child, often before others do. By recognising your child’s difficulties it will help you to understand their needs and difficulties and see them in perspective. This plays a huge part in helping your child.
Help Your Child to Feel All Right About Themselves
Early in life children recognise that they find things difficult compared to their peers. They find everyday life harder than other children and often feel less confident about their abilities and themselves.You can have a huge impact on helping develop your child’s confidence to enable them to feel all right and good about themselves. This increased confidence then enables them to try new activities and so help develop sensory processing abilities and skills.
Control the Environment
Children are bombarded by sensory experiences all day. By understanding your child’s difficulties and by providing the right sensory experiences and environment at home you can make a huge difference to the life of your child and your family.
Help Your Child Learn to Play
Children with sensory processing disorder often find it difficult to play with toys and with their friends. Play is essential for your child to develop and learn skills. You may need to help your child play and provide games and activities that will help to develop your child’s sensory processing skills.
The more you understand about your child’s difficulties the more you will be able to help your child. Books and websites are useful sources of information. As well as providing a comprehensive assessment and therapy service, we also run courses for groups of parents to help you understand your child more.
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Useful links for information on Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction
Visit our links and resources page for further information on Sensory Processing Disorder/Sensory Integration Dysfunction.(back to top)