What is Sensory Integration?

Just as a computer is made to process data, the human brain is made to process sensory data into meaningful information.  The brain is designed to be able to process classroom sounds into instructions, written numbers into equations and even sights along a roadway into traffic signs. 

Examples of sensory processing that the brain handles might include:

  • ability to process sounds into language, music, or the wail of a siren
  • ability to process sights into works, pictures, or faces of people you know
  • ability to process touch into the soft feel of a silky blouse, the itch or a garment tag on the back of your neck, or the light touch of a bug on your arm
  • ability to process tastes and textures in the mouth into the sweet taste of ice cream, the bumpy texture of tapioca, the tingle of a sticky of cinnamon gum, or the sour crisp of a pickle
  • ability to process moving through space into the gentle lull of a boat ride, the plummet of a roller coaster dip, or the alert to danger when stumbling
  • ability to process smells and feeling associated with the aroma of hot bread, the fragrance of a flower, or the stench of a boys locker room
The brain is designed to simultaneously integrate these types of sensory inputs and compute their meaning, given a particular context.  e.g. A light moving touch on the arm while sitting on a blanket on a sunny day at a picnic might be computed as a bug on your arm, while a light moving touch on your arm might be computed as an invitation to dance. 

Sensory Integration Disorders

Sensory integration disorders represent a group of developmental disabilities that emerge when the brain consistently fails in its ability to analyze and interpret sensory data.  They include:
  • Developmental dyspraxia - a disorder of the ability to coordinate movements of the body
  • Sensory Defensiveness - a disorder of the ability to assess the intensity of the sensory input so that an over-reaction occurs
  • Various other disorders of the mood, attention, and activity level
Sensory integration disorders impact learning and social behavior.  When left untreated, the behaviors of children with sensory integration disorders tend to show associated disorders such as attention deficit, learning disability, behavior problems, dyslexia, and other perceptual phenomena.

For example, when the ability to process sounds is impaired, the child might be able to hear, but not necessarily understand speech and other environmental sounds. Following instructions may be difficult as well as developing intelligible speech.

When the ability to process sights is impaired, although the child is able to see, they may not necessarily be able to recognize common objects and associate them with their function. At times these children may not be able to judge how close they are to objects and frequently stumble or trip.

When the ability to process touch is impaired, although the child may be able to appreciate touch to some degree, they might not necessarily understand how to touch. Grip may be too hard, too light, or too rough. Broken toys, and difficulties with safe play may be problematic.

When the ability to process taste or even touch inside the mouth is impaired, although the child eats, typically they are very picky eaters. Since healthy nutrition impacts mood, activity level, and attention, learning will be affected as well.

Children with sensory integration disorders can be helped through treatment that is provided by a therapist who is trained in use of the specialized equipment and techniques needed to address the underlying sensory processing issues.

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