Sensory Integration refers to the neurological process of utilizing sensory information from the environment as well as from the body and organizing the information to perform daily tasks and activities and for use in self-regulation. Sensory integration begins within the womb and occurs throughout the lifespan. Sensory integration occurs in everyone and occurs constantly.
Sensory integration happens in every person’s nervous system. To what extent and how well sensory information is organized and integrated varies from person to person. This level of processing is so very basic, that it can be difficult to understand when sensory integration is not occurring effectively and efficiently.
The sensory information that the nervous system relies upon to function includes the sensory systems we likely learned as children: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. These systems provide critical information about the environment around the body.
Sight or vision provides the nervous system with a visual representation of the world as well as the body. Vision is more than just acuity (how well the eyes focus) and involves neurological processes to perceive, or interpret, the visual information and to integrate visual information with movement (eye-hand coordination for example). It works with other sensory systems to provide a sense of dimension in the world and a map of the environment and the body. Vision provides safety by alerting the nervous system to potential danger such as quickly turning attention to fast moving objects.
The auditory system provides the sense of hearing and our ability to listen. The nervous system is able to utilize sound for communication, locate objects producing a sound, and to provide information regarding the space surrounding the body. The auditory system provides protection by alerting the nervous system to sounds associated with danger.
Olfaction, or smell, and the gustatory, or taste, systems are specialized sensory systems that most people are well aware of. They work together to make eating enjoyable and to protect the body from ingesting potentially dangerous food (alerts to spoiled food, etc.). Olfaction is closely linked to memory.
There are other sensory systems that we do not usually learn about, but are critical to our basic functioning. These sensory systems include the vestibular system and proprioception. These systems, along with the tactile (touch) system, provide the nervous system with information from and about the body.
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and is responsible for providing information regarding the pull of gravity, changes in head position, and movement such as acceleration and deceleration. Vestibular processing is important for balance, coordination, attention, and a sense of groundedness.
Proprioception is known as the joint and muscle position sense. It is very important for strength, muscle tone, and positioning the body to perform tasks and activities. Effective proprioceptive processing is important for coordination.
The tactile system provides information regarding a variety of touch sensations. Touch information includes light touch, deep pressure touch, vibration, and kinesthetic (movement across the skin) touch. Tactile processing is important for coordination, attention, and connection in regards to relationships.
Sensory systems are constantly providing information to the nervous system, but generally occur without our conscious awareness. When sensory information is entering the nervous system effectively and processing efficiently, learning, performing, and being occur promisingly.
When sensory information is not processed efficiently or effectively, learning, performing, and being is likely constrained.
The idea behind sensory integration is that the structures that make sensory processing occur are not broken or injured. Rather, it is that for some reason they are not able to integrate or synch up well. It is the processing that is impaired. It is like a computer whose software is not well integrated. Issues arise in the output (frozen computer, slow response, taking extra steps for a simple task, etc.).
In a person or child, when sensory processing is not well integrated, the output is also where it is noticed. The output may be attention and focus, behavior and self-regulation difficulties, coordination difficulties including handwriting, daily living difficulties such as feeding, sleeping, dressing, and time management. Many times the issues seem random and unrelated until they are viewed from the lens of sensory processing where many of the issues can now be understood.
The difficulty in diagnosing and recognizing the symptoms is that they are highly individual. Individualized treatment is also necessary. To diagnose well and provide effective treatment, a keen, well trained and highly experienced eye is required.
If sensory processing problems are suspected a thorough evaluation by an occupational therapist who is well-trained in sensory integration and highly experienced is recommended. An evaluation may lead you to the road of understanding, hope, and promise.
Elise M Caton, MOT, OTR/L
Director, Lamp Post Therapy Center