Sensory Integration (aka Sensory Processing)
Sensory integration is the brain’s ability to organize sensations for use. Our senses give us information about the physical conditions of our body and the environment around us. The brain must organize (integrate) all of these sensations for a person to learn and behave functionally. When the brain is able to organize these sensations well, the brain uses the sensations to form perceptions and behaviors. The use of new perceptions and behaviors to accomplish a task results in learning.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensations are “food for the brain”. They provide the energy and knowledge needed to direct the body and mind. Without well-organized sensory processes, sensations cannot be digested and nourish the brain.
Sensory integration is the ability to put information together to form a whole picture from pieces of information. Integration enables the brain to see the “big picture” as well as break it down into component pieces.
How does sensory integration develop?
Integration is what turns sensations into perception. We perceive our bodies, other people, and objects because our brain has integrated sensory impulses into meaningful forms and relationships. Sensory integration begins in the womb as the fetus senses the movements of the mother’s body. It occurs and develops throughout life so that children may master the tasks of crawling and walking. Childhood play leads to sensory integration as the child organizes the sensations of his body and gravity with sight and sound. A child who learns to organize his play is more likely to organize his school work and become an organized adult.
Until about seven years old, the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. Young children do not have many abstract thoughts or ideas about things, they are concerned mainly with sensing them and moving their body in relationship to those sensations.
How does sensory integration work?
When the sensory integrative capacity of the brain is sufficient to meet the demands of the environment, the child’s response is efficient, creative, and satisfying. This is called an adaptive response. When the child experiences challenges to which he can respond effectively, he is “having fun”. In some respects, “fun” is a child’s word for sensory integration.
What happens when sensory integration is impaired?
When the brain does a poor job of integrating sensations, this will interfere with many things in life. About five to ten percent of children in the US have enough trouble with sensory integration to cause them to be slow learners or to have behavioral problems. Children may reach motor milestones such as rolling, crawling, and walking later than other children. These children may not play as skillfully as other children. And these children may develop language skills later than other children.
Often, these problems do not become apparent until a child attends school. Children have a lot of expectations to meet while in school. They must learn new things, get along with peers and teachers, dress themselves, change from one task to another, pay attention with a room full of distractions, and remember multi-step commands. A child with sensory integration problems may be over-stimulated by a busy classroom environment. The child’s brain may respond to the overwhelming amount of information with a lot of excess activity that is attempting to balance the brain’s confusion, or a decreased level of activity that is trying to shut out the confusing stimuli. Every child with poor sensory integration shows a different set of symptoms and typically developing children show a few of these problems at one time or another. It is only when the child has many problems that occur much of the time and interfere with activities of daily living, that parent should be concerned.
What is sensory integration therapy?
Sensory integration therapy teaches the child to use many connections in the brain simultaneously. This is achieved by presenting the child with a combination of sensory stimuli (tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive, gustatory, visual, and olfactory) that is appropriate to the child’s deficit. It emphasizes the connections in the brain stem, where many types of sensations come together.
This stimulation is one of the things that normal play provides the average child. Children must learn to receive the proper information from the senses and process the information received for further use.
Children with sensory integrative dysfunction rarely give themselves the proper stimulation on their own. Therefore, therapy provides an opportunity for the child to participate in guided play that will help the brain work better. Therapists utilize a play format to engage the child so that the therapy will be maximally effective. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to make therapy look casual, but both the child and the therapist are actually working very hard. All the activities are purposeful and directed toward a goal. Therapy is not designed to learn specific skills, but to learn how to organize the brain so that it will work better. This organization can be used by the child to learn specific skills. The ultimate goal of sensory integration therapy is self-development and/or self-organization.