What is Sensory Integration?

Published on 20th July, 2020

What is Sensory Integration?

One of the pioneers of defining and developing the sensory integrative approach was Dr Jean Ayres, an Occupational Therapist and Educational Psychologist. With her background in neuroscience, Jean Ayres defined Sensory Integration as “the neurological process that organizes sensations from one’s body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively in the environment” (Ayres, 1972).

We experience the world through 8 senses:

  • Vision (sight)
  • Auditory (hearing)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Proprioception (joint position sense)
  • Vestibular (balance and movement)
  • Interoception (helps us sense what is happening inside our body – e.g. feeling hungry, needing to use the washroom or when our heart is beating fast).

The different parts of our body take in sensory information from our environment and sends this information up to our brain. Our brain then interprets and organizes the information to help us use our body effectively in the environment. Hence, Sensory Integration is an important foundation in enabling us to do all the things we need to and want to do (E.g. dressing, eating, playing at the playground, socialising, learning and working). A simple example would be when you approach uneven ground as you are walking along a path on a rainy day, and you start to lose balance, you immediately react to this sensation of being off-balance by regaining your balance or by stepping over the uneven ground area.

Knowledge and feedback from successful sensory and movement experiences enhance a person’s ability to interact effectively in response to environmental demands.

To summarize: We perceive, modulate, organize and interpret sensory information.

How do I know if my child may have sensory integration concerns?

Sensory integration problems may interfere with various age appropriate life activities. Some people with sensory processing disorder are oversensitive to things in their environment. A child who is unable to tolerate the feel of different clothing fabric or a child who does not want to be hugged or kissed.

On the other hand, other children may seek out input such as jumping, crashing and tight hugs. These children may also appear clumsy, be uncoordinated or tend to exert too much force when playing with their friends at the playground. Children may also face difficulty with holding and using utensils such as scissors, pencils, managing opening and closing of their lunchbox.

Some children may crave intense movement, spinning or are in constant motion while others may be fearful of activities that involve climbing playground equipment or swinging.

Since sensory processing affects many body systems, the effects of poor processing can be seen in many functional areas. Therefore, children may present with a variety of challenges that impacts their ability to do the things they need to do in everyday life.

Other common signs of sensory processing issues may include:

  • Bothered by lights/ visual patterns/ loud noises
  • Squinting/ blinking/ rubbing the eyes often
  • Bumping into people or things
  • A high activity level or low activity level (appearing to lack initiative/ lethargic/ sedentary)
  • Difficulty with handling transitions
  • Dislikes getting messy or aversive to certain textures
  • Unusually high or low pain threshold

While sensory processing problems are usually identified in children, they can also affect adults. Sensory processing problems are commonly seen in developmental conditions like autism spectrum disorder but may also come up with children and adults who are not on the spectrum.

As a result of everyday challenges, it becomes difficult for children and adults to feel safe and comfortable, function effectively, to learn, to work and to socialize. Have you witnessed a child lashing out or completely sprawled out on the floor at a crowded shopping mall? – This may be indicative of sensory overload. Overwhelming feelings, dysregulation and difficulties experiencing the world safely can have a profound effect on one’s own emotional well-being and sense of self.

The pyramid of learning by William and Shellenberger, depicts a visual representation of how learning takes places in an incremental way. A child’s sensory integration forms the foundation from which higher-level skills are attained.

What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory Pyramid of Learning

What can I do to support my child?

Identifying challenges in your child’s participation in everyday activities would be a good first step. Since sensory processing affects many body systems, it would be best to seek professional support for your child to tease out the sensory processing issues.

An Occupational Therapist trained in Ayres Sensory Integration would be best able to identify patterns of dysfunction in sensory processing. Intervention would aim to foster the child’s active participation in their valued occupations (physical, social and functional activities) through active, individually tailored, sensory-rich experiences to promote skills.

The Occupational Therapist would also work with you to identify appropriate sensory activities, environmental modifications and adaptations to daily routines, for home and in the classroom to meet your child’s specific needs.