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What Is Sensory Integration?

Sensory integration defines the way the senses are used to understand the environment. Familiar senses are taste, sight, sound and smell, yet there are two “hidden” senses which are equally important, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The vestibular sense is the sense of movement. It permits the arms and legs to work together with vision to keep the body upright, coordinate movement and let the individual know where he is in relation to people and objects in the environment. This is the sense that allows one to maneuver around in a crowded area without bumping into things, and to know where one is in relation to the earth when climbing.

The proprioceptive sense gives the body information about where the bones, joints, and muscles are and what they are doing. It is this sense that helps one use 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. The vestibular and proprioceptive 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 work together to give the body information necessary to stay upright, maintain balance and move in the desired direction.

Additionally, the sense of touch, or tactile sense, allows people to find car keys in their pockets without having to look. It tells the difference between something that is potentially dangerous, such as a sharp object, and something that is beneficial, such as a warm blanket. Exploration by use of touch is one of the first ways infants learn about their world and forms the basis for refined fine motor skills later in life.

What is Sensory Integrative Dysfunction?

Accurate interpretation of the information gathered by the senses is vital in order to respond appropriately to the environment. When information from the senses is not interpreted correctly, behaviors may result which can be baffling to everyone involved. If there is over sensitivity to sensory input, the person may react negatively to any physical contact, become fearful during movement, or avoid routine activities such as grooming. If there is under sensitivity to sensory input, the individual may crave movement to the point where they fling themselves to the floor or against the wall and seem to not feel pain. There may be fluctuations between very high and very low activity levels, seemingly following no specific pattern. Difficulties with coordination, balance, and movement may be seen since sensory integrative dysfunction negatively affects the ability to plan how to move. The ability to regulate one’s arousal and attention level is impaired, making it difficult to learn, to understand and express feelings, and to interact with others.

Our occupational therapists 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 child’s strengths while motivating him or her to participate in activities that help organize sensory input.