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What are Sensory Integration and Sensory Integration Disorder?

What are Sensory Integration and Sensory Integration Disorder?

Sensory integration defines the way the senses are used to understand the environment.  The body takes in the information from the environment through the senses and delivers these sensations to the brain which processes and interprets the sensations and activates an appropriate physical response.

Thus, the brain, like a traffic policeman directing the flow of traffic, directs incoming sensations to the part of the brain that is specialized to handle them, When the flow of sensations is orderly, the sensations can be used to understand and negotiate the world, but when the flow of sensations is disorganized, the body can feel overwhelmed, like being in rush-hour traffic.  Infants are born with millions of neurons which develop connections for the flow of traffic, and these neurons must be stimulated to develop these roadways.  It is play and exploration of the environment by the developing child, opportunities for the sense organs to be in constant and repeated contact with the environment,  that develop the process.

We all know the familiar senses of taste, sight, sound, and smell, but we seldom think about touch, and most of us do not know about the two “hidden” senses which are equally important:  the vestibular and proprioceptive senses.  These senses work closely together to help maintain balance and coordinate movement.  When a new activity is attempted, such as walking on a balance beam, these senses integrate to give the body the information it needs to stay upright, maintain balance and move in a desired direction.

The vestibular sense provides the sense of movement across the balance beam.  It coordinates the movements between the out-held arms and the stepping feet and permits the arms and legs to work together with the eyes to keep the body from falling off.  The vestibular sense tells the individual where he is in relation to people and objects in the environment, allowing him to maneuver around in a crowded area without bumping into things, as well as know where he is in relation to the earth when climbing.

The proprioceptive sense gives the individual information about where the bones, joints and muscles are and what they are doing.  It is this sense that helps him apply the right amount of strength to pick up an egg or hammer a nail without having to consciously think about how much force to use.

Sensory integrative disorder occurs when the flow of sensations is disorganized and the brain cannot interpret the sensations correctly, causing the body to feel overwhelmed, like being in rush hour traffic. The individual may under- or over-react, depending on his sensitivity to the sensory input, behaving in ways that may be baffling to everyone involved.  If there is over-sensitivity the individual may react negatively to any physical contact, or avoid routine activities such as grooming, because these activities are too intense or painful.  If there is under-sensitivity to sensory input, the individual may crave input to such extremes as flinging himself onto the floor or against the wall and seem not to feel pain.

Because sensory integrative disorder affects proprioception, the individual may experience difficulties with coordination, balance, movement and position in space.  The vestibular system may be involved: the individual may not be able to stand in a queue, and may be irritating to others because of proximity issues.  Moreover, there may be mixed profiles of fluctuations between very high and very low activity levels, which seem to follow no specific pattern.  For individuals with sensory integration disorder and difficulties regulating arousal levels, attention is usually discrepant, which makes it difficult to learn, to understand and express feelings, and to interact with others.
Occupational Therapists at the Center for Speech, Language and Occupational Therapy, Inc. are trained to understand and address problems with sensory integration.  Activities are planned which provide the “just right challenge” to enhance the individual’s ability to accurately interpret and respond to sensory input.  The therapist builds on the individual’s  strengths while providing motivation for participation in activities that help organize sensory input.