For most children, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. Motor planning ability is a natural outcome of the process, as in the ability to adapt to incoming sensations. But, for some children, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should. When the process is disordered, a number of problems in learning development or behavior may become evident.
Signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction include:
- Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
- Easily distracted awareness
- Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low
- Impulsive, lacking in self-control
- Inability to unwind or calm self
- Poor self-concept
- Social and/or emotional problems
- Physical clumsiness or apparent carelessness
- Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
- Delays in speech, language, or motor skills
- Delays in academic achievement
- Slow reaction to touch, movements, sights, or sounds
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound, and the pull of gravity. The process of the brain organizing and interpreting this information is called sensory integration. Sensory integration provides a crucial foundation for later, more complex learning and behavior.
For most children, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. Motor planning ability is a natural outcome of the process, as in the ability to adapt to incoming sensations. But, for some children, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should. When the process is disordered, a number of problems in learning, development, or behavior may become evident.
The concept of sensory integration comes from a body of work developed by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, OTR. As an occupational therapist, Dr. Ayers was interested in the way sensory processing and motor planning disorders interfere with daily life functioning and learning. This theory has been developed and refined by the research of Dr. Ayers, as well as other occupational and physical therapists. In addition, literature from the fields of neuropsychology, neurology, physiology, child development, and psychology has contributed to theory development and intervention strategies.
What Can Be Done?
If a child is suspected of having a sensory integration disorder, an evaluation can be conducted by a qualified occupational or physical therapist. Evaluation usually consists of both standardized testing and structured observations of responses to sensory stimulation, posture, balance, coordination, and eye movements. After carefully analyzing test results, assessment data, and information from other professionals and parents, the therapist will make recommendations regarding appropriate therapy.
If therapy is recommended, the child will be guided through activities that challenge his or her ability to respond appropriately to sensory input by making a successful, organized response.
Training of specific skills is not usually the focus of this kind of therapy. Adaptive physical education, movement education, and gymnastics are examples of services that typically focus on specific motor skills training. Such services are important, but they are not the same as therapy using a sensory integrative approach.
One important aspect of therapy that uses a sensory integrative approach is the motivation of the child, which plays a crucial role in the selection of the activities. Most children tend to seek activities that provide sensory experiences most beneficial to them at that point in development. It is this active involvement and exploration that enables the child to become a more mature, efficient organizer of sensory information.
Where to Learn More?
The most important step in promoting sensory integration in children is to recognize that it exists and that it plays an important role in the development of a child. By learning more about sensory integration, parents, educators, and caregivers can provide an enriched environment that will foster healthy growth and maturation.
For more information:
- Contact your local Occupational or Physical Therapy Clinic
- Read these and other books about sensory integration:
- A Parent's Guide to Understanding Sensory Integration, Sensory Integration International (1986)
- Sensory Motor Handbook by Bissell, Fisher, Owens & Polcyn Sensory Integration International (1987)
- Sensory Integration and the Child by A. Jean Ayres Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services (1979)
- Sensory Integration: Theory and Practice by Fisher, Murray & Bundy, Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co. (1991)