Term of Art: Sensory Integration

“sensory integration: The process of taking in sensory information, organizing this information the central nervous system, and using the information to function smoothly in daily life. Sensory integration is a continual process: a children gain competence, their sensory integration improves, so the more children do, the more they can do.

Sensory experiences include touch movement, body awareness, sight, sound, and the pull of gravity; as the brain organizes and interprets this information, it provides a crucial foundation for later, more complex learning and behavior. This critical function of the brain is responsible for producing a composite picture of a person’s existence, so that the person can understand who he or she is physically, where he or she is, and what is going on in the environment around him or her.

For most people effective sensory integration occurs automatically and unconsciously, without effort. For others, however, the process is inefficient, demanding effort and attention with no guarantee of accuracy.

For most children, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. But for some children, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should. When the process breaks down, a number of problems in learning, development, and behavior may develop.

The concept of sensory integration comes from a body of work developed by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres, PhD., who was interested in the way in which sensory processing and motor planning disorders interfere with daily life function and learning. This theory has been developed and refined by the research of Dr. Ayres, as well as other occupational and physical therapists. In addition, literature from the fields of neuropsychology, neurology, physiology, child development, and psychology has contributed to theory development and treatment strategies, although the theory is not yet fully accepted by all experts.

The theory states that children with sensory integration problems may be bright, but they may have trouble using a pencil, playing with toys, or taking care of personal tasks, such as getting dressed. Some children with this problem are so afraid of movement that ordinary swings, slides, or jungle gyms trigger fear and insecurity. On the other hand, some children whose problems lie at the opposite extreme are uninhibited and overly active, often falling and running headlong into dangerous situations. In each of these cases, some experts believe a sensory integrative problem may be an underlying factor. Its far-reaching effects can interfere with academic learning, social skills, even self-esteem.

Research clearly identifies sensory integrative problems in children with developmental or learning difficulties, and independent research shows that a sensory integrative problem can be found in some children who are considered learning disabled by schools. However, sensory integrative problems are not limited to children with learning disabilities; they can affect all ages, intellectual levels, and socioeconomic groups.

A number of situations can trigger sensory integration problems, including prematurity, developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and brain injury.

Prematurity As more premature infants survive today, they enter the world with easily overstimulated nervous systems and multiple medical problems. Parents need to learn how to give their premature infant the sensory nourishment their child requires for optimal development, and how to avoid harmful overstimulation.

Developmental disorders Severe problems with sensory processing is a hallmark of autism. Autistic children seek out unusual amounts of certain types of sensations, but are extremely hypersensitive to others. Similar traits are often seen in other children with developmental disorders. Improving sensory processing will help these children develop more productive contacts with people and environments.

Learning disabilities As many as 30 percent of school-age children may have learning disabilities. While most of these children have normal intelligence, many are likely to have sensory integrative problems, and to have poor motor coordination. Early intervention can improve sensory integration in these children, minimizing the possibility of school failure before it occurs.

Many studies indicate that children with learning disabilities are at risk for later delinquency, criminal behavior, alcoholism, and drug abuse because of repeated failure in school. By interrupting the vicious cycle of failure, intervention to help children with sensory integration and learning problems may also prevent serious social problems later in life.

Brain Injury Trauma to the brain as a result of accidents and strokes can have profound effects on sensory functioning. People who suffer from these effects deserve treatment that will lead to the best possible recovery. In order for this to occur, their sensory deficits must be addressed.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

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