What is Sensory Integration?

Sensory integration is the ability to take in information from our senses and effectively utilize the information to respond to the demands of our environment. Sensory processing is an ongoing, fluid process within the nervous system. We all receive information from our senses: touch, body position, movement, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Our brain must organize this information so that we can successfully function in day-to-day life, including home, school, play, and work, and during social interactions.

The Seven Senses

  • The tactile (touch) system provides information so we can learn about size, shape, and texture of objects, and is important for developing body awareness and planning motor actions. Tactile information contributes to the development of fine motor skill, such as for manipulating objects for tool use. An example of tactile discrimination is when you reach into your pocket and distinguish a coin from a key without the use of your vision.
  • Proprioception (body awareness) provides information from our muscles and joints, and provides the foundation for understanding body position in space and how much force we need for a particular task, such as holding a pencil or throwing a ball.
  • The vestibular (movement and balance) system is the foundation for the development of balance reactions. This sense provides information about the position and movement of the head in relation to gravity and, therefore, about the speed and direction of movement. The vestibular system also provides information related to postural control.
  • The visual (sight) system is critical in recognizing shapes, colors, letters, words, and numbers. It is also important in social interactions, such as reading body language and other non-verbal cues. Our visual system guides and monitors our movement.
  • The auditory (hearing) system functions in sound perception. This system identifies the quality and location of sound. Our auditory sense tells us to turn our heads and look when we hear cars approaching. It also provides the foundation for expressive and receptive language development.
  • The gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) systems are closely related. They allow us to enjoy tastes and smells of foods and cause us to react negatively to unpleasant or dangerous sensations.

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Components of Sensory Processing

  • Sensory Modulation is the ability to take in sensory information, decide what is relevant, and make an appropriate behavioral response. Difficulties in this area can result in avoidance or fear of normal sensations or unusual sensory-seeking behaviors. Sensory modulation helps regulate the nervous system and directly impacts behavior and emotional development.
  • Sensory Discrimination is the organization and interpretation of the specific qualities of sensory information, such as size, shape, and texture; direction of a noise; and body position and movement in space. Difficulties in sensory discrimination generally result in motor-related problems, such as poor balance and coordination or delayed motor skill development.
  • Praxis, or motor planning, is the ability to plan, sequence, and execute novel activities. Effective praxis is impacted by difficulties with sensory modulation and sensory discrimination. Children with dyspraxia often have difficulties executing motor tasks, developing organization skills, and interacting with objects in a playful and imaginative way.

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What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

SPD, also known as Sensory Integration Disorder (DSI), was first identified by Dr. A. Jean Ayres. It is an often unrecognized disorder that is seen in otherwise typically functioning individuals as well as those with attention deficit disorder, autism, learning disabilities, and other neurological conditions. These individuals are not able to effectively process information from their senses (touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell, and/or movement), resulting in delays in motor skills and problems with self-regulation, attention, and behavior. It is estimated that 5-13% of children entering school have SPD, and that 3 out of 4 of these children are boys.

Individuals with SPD can experience difficulties with:

  • gross motor, fine motor, and oral motor skills
  • self-regulation impacting attention and behavior
  • anxiety
  • dressing and eating skills
  • sleep
  • bowel and bladder
  • play skills
  • social skills and self-esteem

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This information was compiled by Groton Integrated Therapies with significant contributions from The Spiral Foundation and from OTA-Watertown.