Making SENSE of SENSORY INTEGRATION= something we all need to undertstand

As I’ve mentioned before, we want our blog to meet many goals but one is to educate.  A topic we get frequent questions about involves the word “sensory.” I guarantee you have or know of a child with “sensory needs,” so I thought I’d use this entry to provide a GENERAL understanding on this topic.  Please keep in mind that this is just that, general. This topic is very detailed and you could research and read for months and go to uncountable conferences on this subject, so this entry is not meant for those who have a good grasp on sensory needs and want detailed information.  

Who has “sensory issues?” It is true that children on the Autistic Spectrum have sensory integration issues, however people who are not on the spectrum also can have issues in this area.  In fact, we all have “sensory needs,” what makes them concerning is if they interrupt our daily function.
When you hear the word sensory you think back to 1st grade science, right? Taste, touch, smell, sight, sound! While these are certainly senses and important ones at that, our nervous systems also process other senses such as deep pressure, light touch, vestibular movement (like swinging or spinning), and gravitational position/proprioception (where your body is in space) to name a few. Our nervous systems were made to take in all these senses, process them, and organize our bodies in response to them in order to function.  For example, if a child is sitting in class around mid day, his or her nervous system is processing the temperature of the room, the smell of cooking lunch, the sound of the train outside, the glare of the overhead light on his or her page, the feeling of the tag inside a sweater, and the pressure of the desk he or she has been sitting in for 90 minutes.  In a properly functioning nervous system, this child would be able to take in all these senses, organize them, and allow him or her to pay attention to what is being taught.  Imagine one of those areas is not integrated properly. For example – if sound is not processed appropriately, that child will hear that train like a bull horn in his/her ears, making attending to the lesson impossible.

Our bodies seek out the input we need and avoid the input that is too much to function in any situation.  Every person is either a sensory seeker (you know who you are out there, you roller coaster riding-barefoot walking-toucher of every object as you walk through a store) or sensory avoider (don’t even think about having the TV and radio on at the same time while having a conversation, and forget that deep tissue massage!)  Truth is, most of us are a combination of these things during our day to help our body meet it’s various needs.  Chewing the end of a pen keeps you alert in a lecture the same way shifting in your seat does. I shake my foot as I fall to sleep – always have – and most people on my mother’s side of the family do. I now know, this is my own way to calm my nervous system down.   This is why we rock babies to sleep!

So what do you do if a child you love or you yourself have issues integrating sensory information? If the issues are severe and are affecting learning, sleep, and social interaction, you should seek the assistance of a physician and/or a sensory trained therapist in your area.  Occupational Therapists are most commonly the ones in our field with the most training in this area and there are some that are what we call SIPT trained.  This stands for Sensory Integration Praxis Test, meaning these folks have had extensive training in recognizing, administrating a detailed examination to determine needs, and prescribing appropriate treatment.  Treatment usually comes in the form of a general or very specific “sensory diet,” and no this does not mean food!  A sensory diet details the amount, type, and frequency of certain sensory activities to help your nervous system come to an optimal state allowing your body to fully function. For sensory avoiders or those low on a sensory threshold, this may mean “revving up” the system and for those who are already to revved up, this means calming it down.  

What does this mean for a “typically” (who is really typical, right?) developing child or adult? Feel that your child is not sitting through dinner? Make it part of your routine to run 5 laps around the house and jump off the bottom steps 5 times.  Do you have a student that fidgets or a child that can’t sit through story hour? Give them a stress ball to squeeze while paying attention.  The goal no matter how significant is not to ignore or stifle the sensory needs of the individual but to help them meet the needs their body is seeking out in an appropriate manner. This is why recess and P.E. and learning through movement are essential and successful components to learning. Children can acquire what their sensory system needs in this way!

Keep in mind that with the growing number of Autistic children in our society today we are also seeing a huge number of children with Sensory Processing Disorder.  These children and families often avoid fun community activities because their child’s different reaction to certain stimuli is frequently greeting with negative reactions.  If you keep in mind that these kids are not misbehaving but simply trying to regulate their nervous systems, we could all be more supportive to these families.

Observe your child today. What sensory activities are they avoiding or seeking? Do they crave deep pressure and find it through toe walking, jumping, or climbing? Do they seek vestibular movement through swinging or spinning? Are they finding visual input by running quickly as their world flies by them? Use what they need to help them get to the optimal sensory level to learn and play and enjoy knowing that you know something more about how your child is wonderfully made!

 Here’s our youngest having fun – and seeking out some sensory seeking behavior!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *