What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration is the ability to take in information from our environment using our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), process that information, and then use it to respond to our environment. The information gathered from our environment is taken in and processed by our brains and nervous systems. We all need our nervous system to work properly so that we can efficiently function in our day to day lives.
What is Sensory Integration Dysfunction?
Sensory integration dysfunction occurs when the nervous system does not correctly or efficiently gather information from the environment. The central nervous system either allows too much or too little information from the senses to be processed. We all have "quirks" in how our nervous system processes information, such as not liking chalk on our fingers, needing our shoes tied very tightly, or being particularly sensitive to certain scents. However, when those "quirks" begin to impact one's ability to function, sensory integration dysfunction is likely the culprit.
Symptoms of Sensory Integration Dysfunction
Auditory: Responds negatively to unexpected or loud noises, holds hands over ears, cannot play or work with background noises, seems oblivious within active environment.
Visual: Prefers to be in the dark, hesitates going up and down steps, avoid bright lights, stares intensely at people or objects, avoids eye contact.
Taste/Smell: Avoids certain tastes/smells that are typically part of a child's diet, routinely smells nonfood objects, seeks out certain tastes or smells, does not seem to smell strong odors.
Body Position: Continually seeks out all kinds of movement activities, hangs on other people, furniture, objects, even in familiar situations, seems to have weak muscles, tires easily, has poor endurance, walks on toes.
Movement: Becomes anxious or distressed when feet leave the ground, avoids climbing or jumping, avoids playground equipment, seeks all kinds of movement and this interferes with daily life, takes excessive risks while playing, has no safety awareness.
Touch: Avoids getting messy in glue, sand, finger paint, dirt, is sensitive to certain fabrics (clothing, bedding), touches people and objects at an irrational level, avoids going barefoot, especially in grass or sand, avoid haircuts or brushing teeth, has a decreased awareness of pain and temperature.
Our Therapeutic Team Involves Your Family:
In order for Sensory Integration Therapy to be most effective, a Team Approach is necessary. A child's team includes the child, the family unit, teachers and therapists. Families and teachers may be given "Sensory Diets" to follow at home and school. This is a list of steps to follow to help your child achieve and maintain a balanced sensory system. This diet may change regularly to best fit your child and should be used throughout the day to ensure carryover of skills learned in therapy. Like other disorders, Sensory Integration needs must be addressed throughout the day. Some days will be better and some worse, but with application of appropriate sensory strategies, children and parents/caregivers will have more control of the situation.
Sensory Integration Therapy combined with Behavioral Therapy/ Counseling
Sensory Integration Dysfunction can cause children to present with negative behaviors as they struggle to make sense of their environment and bodies. Shyness, poor peer relations, poor self esteem, frustration, need for control, tantrums and withdrawal are commonly seen. Often, behaviors which may have begun as a reaction to poor sensory processing, will have over time taken on a more complex etiology, and can not be addressed by sensory integration therapy alone. For example, a child who is sensitive to touch may have initially presented with moderate shyness and disinterest in his environment. As he grew, he may have developed anger, violent behaviors, strained relationships, and poor self esteem as dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Although the initial cause was and remains a sensory integration disorder, it is now a more complex problem. When this is noted, therapists will refer families to Behavioral Therapists, Counseling and/or Family Counseling. Occupational Therapists work with children who have behavioral problems that stem directly from sensory dysfunctions, but are not trained counselors, behavior therapists or psychologists so they frequently work in conjunction with these other therapists to provide the most complete and appropriate care.