WHAT IS SENSORY INTEGRATION?
Sensory integration refers to our nervous system′s ability to take in sensory information and organize it for use. It is the ability of our brain and body to take in sensory messages and effortlessly organize them into behavioral, social, emotional, motor, or physiological responses that are appropriate to an outside stimulus or environmental demand. For some children and even adults, sensory messages are not efficiently organized and a disruption in motor skill development, functional abilities, and/or behavior can be the result.
Most of us are aware of the five typical senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. But there are two additional senses, often referred to as “hidden” senses that are critical to adaptive functioning. One of these important senses is our vestibular sense. This sense is important in terms of its influence over muscle tone, balance, moving and remaining upright against gravity, coordinating both sides of our body together, and coordinating our head and eye movements. The other important sense is our proprioceptive sense. Through receptors in our muscles, tendons, and joints this sense tells us where our body parts are in space and the direction, speed, and force of our movements. When we have trouble interpreting or processing the information that comes into our bodies through one or more of these sensory systems and motor or other behaviors result that are disruptive to our daily function, we call this sensory integration dysfunction or sensory processing disorder.
Through this integration of sensory input, all the many components of the nervous system work together so that one can interact with his/her environment and produce adaptive responses. An adaptive response is an action produced successfully by an individual in response to a sensory stimulus or environmental demand. A toddler learning to walk sees a toy on the floor, is able to slow down, shift his weight, step over the toy and continue on his way without falling. This ability to shift his weight and step over the toy without falling is the adaptive response. He sees the toy with his visual system and begins to adjust the speed and force of his walking. That′s his proprioceptive system kicking into gear and helping him to begin adjusting his position. His vestibular system is also at work helping him keep his balance as he looks down at the toy and shifts his weight throwing his center of gravity off-balance. He might even trip over the toy, but catch himself. This won′t upset him emotionally because a similar experience occurred earlier that day and he remembers how to handle it motorically and emotionally. These adaptive responses indicate that he is integrating sensory information efficiently. This ability to generate adaptive responses also means that he is laying the foundation for future sensory integration to take place.
Sensory integration dysfunction was first theorized by A. Jean Ayres in the mid-1900s. Dr. Ayres was an occupational therapist, neuroscientist, and educational psychologist who was the leader in developing sensory integration theory and treatment. This theory holds 3 main assumptions:
1. In order to learn we must take in and process sensation from movement and our environment, then use it to plan and organize adaptive behavior.
2. If we don′t process sensation efficiently we will most likely have difficulty with learning, behavior, social and emotional development, and/or motor performance.
3. By enhancing sensation through meaningful activity while achieving an adaptive response, we will improve the central nervous system′s ability to process sensation, thus improve learning, behavior, social and emotional development, and motor performance.
So what is sensory integration therapy and what does it look like? The primary goal of sensory integration therapy is to improve underlying neurological processes rather than teach specific skills. In this way it is believed that adaptive responses will lead to generalizing developmental abilities rather than teach splinter skills. The child should always be an active participant with his/her interests incorporated into the therapy sessions. For that reason, activities should be child-directed and intrinsically motivating which is why this therapy approach is presented within the context of play. This does not mean that the child dictates every moment of the therapy session, but that they lead and are guided towards activities that will have been motivated by them. Intervention is always individualized to meet the developmental needs of each child with activities selected that are purposeful and provide the “just-right” challenge in a way that will lead to an adaptive response. The child′s family, school personnel, and other caregivers should always be actively involved in the treatment process for carryover across environments.