Just What IS Sensory Integration?

What is sensory integration? In words that we can understand... Let's make this simple, because it is, really.

The information sent to our brains from each of our senses; movement, touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell, is processed. Our brain tells us how that feels, what it looks like, what it sounds like, or how that tastes, and smells. This is simple sensory integration. Our brains perceive sensory information, process it, and reports back to us what is happening.

Think about how sensory information works for you. Touch a hot pan on the stove. The nerves send the signal to your brain, brain thinks about it, and lets you know the pan is hot.  Ouch! That is sensory integration working at its finest.

Try more. Taste an apple that is crunchy and sweet. Step over a glass bottle that you see on the sidewalk. Hear the normal sounds of your house, the refrigerator running, the furnace kicking on, and ignore it. Sit in a restaurant and talk to your family, paying no attention to the other voices around you. This is all sensory integration. The normal processing of sensory information.

Sensory Integration Dysfunction (also known as Sensory Processing Disorder) occurs when this process is not working right. Think again about the above examples. You touch a hot pan, and it does not feel hot, so you don't know you are being burned. Your apple tastes bitter and is rough like gravel. You try to step over the bottle on the sidewalk, and lose your balance and fall down. You hear the sounds of your house. The refrigerator sounds like a freight train, and the furnace is blowing as loud as a tornado. You can't stand restaurants with the clamor of people talking, the clatter of silverware, and feet shuffling. You are unable to concentrate on anything. You hate crowds with all the bumping, and shouting and all those smells make you feel sick.

THIS is dysfunction. The brain is not processing the information from the senses in an efficient manner. Imagine brushing your hair with a brush made out of glass shards, scraping across your scalp. Someone touches your arm, and it feels scorched. Imagine the fabric of your shirt prickling so much, you want to scream and rip it off. This is it.

Sensory Integration Dysfunction has many symptoms, all originating with the senses. Too much or not enough is the general rule. When it is extreme, this disorder interferes with the normal living and learning in daily life.

Now that we understand the very simple thought that the brain might not accurately receive, process, and send the correct responses through our bodies, let's take this one step further.

There are more senses influenced by this disorder than the six we have already considered. The sensory systems of the internal organs. The heart rate, hunger, digestion, state of alertness, mood, bowel/bladder control, breathing. If we are seeing dysfunction in the first six senses, there probably will be some level of dysfunction in the internal organs, as well.

Sensory information is also sent to our brains about our body position, received from muscles, joints, and ligaments. This greatly affects our ability to move correctly, and if the sensory processing is not working effectively, we may be unable to sit, climb, pedal a bike, and more. We may run into walls, or fall down... a lot.

This disorder affects people in different ways, and to various degrees. It is important to have a trained Occupational Therapist evaluate the person suspected of Sensory Integration Dysfunction. They can detect which senses are involved, to what degree, and how to proceed with therapy to help them.

You can't grow out of it. It doesn't go away on it's own. It will seriously inhibit a person's ability to learn, have relationships, and value themselves. Proper evaluation, diagnosis, and therapy designed specifically for each person is the path of recovery. The path to more normal responses of senses.

In "Sensory Integration Dysfunction - The misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and unseen disability", by Sandra Nelson; she states, "I cannot imagine a case of untreated SI that does not interfere with a child's education. If the child is distracted and annoyed by sounds, sights, movement (or lack of ), touch, smells and tastes (among other sensations), how could these irritants not interfere with his or her education? Is this possible?”

Try this: Turn on the radio, then turn it up as loud as it will go. Until it hurts. Put 150 watt bulbs in every lamp in one room, then turn them all on. Put on a pair of pants backwards, and somebody else’s shoes that are too small. Shove a stiff hairbrush down the back of your shirt, so it is poking at you, and driving you crazy. Now clean the kitty litter, change the dirty baby diaper, or scoop up the dog mess in the yard, and sit it square in the middle of the table, so it wafts. Sit at your table with a food you absolutely gag on, in a chair with one leg missing. Now, snack on that food you hate.

How many seconds can you stand the music that loud? The lights so bright? The shoes too tight? And what is that smell!?

Imagine if you cannot stop this. Cannot have a moment, ever, without feeling like you do right now.

Now imagine you are just a little kid, who does not know that it isn’t like this for everybody.

Copyright © Michelle Morris. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:

Michelle Morris is the mother of six, and parent of a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder. She is whole heartedly dedicated to promoting awareness and advocacy for families with SPD children.  She has published over 30 articles supporting and educating parents about SPD.

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Related Resources

Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist - comprehensive SPD Checklist; signs and symptoms of tactile, auditory, olfactory and oral defensiveness, as well as proprioceptive and vestibular dysfunction.

The Adolescent and Adult SPD Checklist - Find out signs and symptoms of SPD with the adolescent and adult SPD checklist.

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