Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Sensory Integration: Why It’s Important

We experience the world through our senses. Our brain receives inputs from the environment through the sense organs. It processes the information and sends signals to our body. Our body reacts according to the signals it receives from the brain. How we receive sensory inputs affects our behaviour. Sounds simple! But, it’s a highly complex process. We have five main senses. They are:

Touch – Tactile
Sound – Auditory
Sight – Visual
Taste – Gustatory
Smell – Olfactory

In addition to the five senses we also use two more senses:

Vestibular or movement and balance sense

This sense provides information about where the body is in space and in relation to the earth’s surface. When you wait at the traffic signal in your car which is stationary, and a bus next to your car moves, you get a feeling your car is also moving. Immediately your brain gets the right input and you realise the bus is moving. 


This sense provides information about all the parts of the body (joints and muscles), their position and what they are doing. If you are blindfolded and lift your hands in line with your shoulders, you know where your hands are. You don’t have to see them to know you have moved your hands away from your body. You are aware even if you don’t see with your eyes.

When the five senses along with vestibular and proprioception work in tandem there is sensory integration.

What happens when there’s sensory disintegration?

Sensory disintegration can happen when the senses are over stimulated (hyper) or not stimulated enough (hypo). A child who may be hypersensitive to touch (tactile) will find brushing teeth extremely disturbing. For him, dental hygiene becomes a problem. Or a child may dislike certain fabrics and won’t want them rubbing against her body. So, she may refuse to wear certain kinds of clothes.

Some children can’t tolerate loud voices, or music when their auditory sense is over stimulated. If their auditory sense is under-stimulated they won’t be able to pick-up certain sounds in speech. They mispronounce words and garble nursery rhymes.

When there’s a problem with their vestibular sense and proprioception they’ll have trouble with directions, gauging distance – they can’t tell if they can jump 5 steps at a go, they just jump. They bump into things and people. They can’t maintain body space in relation to another person they are talking to. They either stand too close to you, or far away from you. They can’t sense the passage of time.

If you were to walk along a street known for its street food, your brain automatically scans the stalls as you walk along the street, your body avoids brushing against another person in the crowd, your nose is able to discriminate the different aromas of food. Your brain gathers all this information, filters it and helps you make the decision to stop at the food stall of your choice.

When there’s sensory disintegration – I will get all the above information at the same time without any filtering, and I won’t know what to do. My senses will be overwhelmed and my anxiety will increase. I may push and shove through the crowd, or stay rooted to the spot – either way, unable to decide what to do.

Most of the time ADHD and SensoryProcessing Disorder occur together. (A term you’ll hear often is comorbid. Don’t panic. It means co-occuring or to occur along with.)

How can I help my child?

Your first port of call will be your paediatrician or Learning Centres which specialise in Learning Differences/Difficulties. Your child will be assessed to understand what kind of learning difference/disability they have. The specialist will refer you to an occupational therapist. The occupational therapist will draw up a plan according to the individual needs of the child. You, as a parent, have to work closely with the occupational therapist and the special educator/teacher. Be prepared for the long haul. 

When you follow what the child requires, the results are obvious and significant. She will become confident in her abilities and this will reflect in academic success and positive behavioural changes in her interactions with peers and adults.

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