“What is Sensory Integration?”
“Sensory Integration” refers to the brain’s ability to take in and process information from the body and the environment. This information comes in various forms (visual, auditory, touch, taste, smell, movement, etc), and is processed to allow the development of appropriate Learning (e.g., attention span, activity level, imitation, initiation), Self-Help Skills (e.g., sleeping, feeding, dressing), and Social Interaction(e.g., transitioning, calming, group participation). Sometimes, when a child’s sensory processing is atypical, there is a negative impact on learning, self-help skills, and/or social interaction.
What is done if there is a “Sensory Integration” problem?
Depending on the nature and extent of a child’s sensory issues, there are various techniques that may be used to promote improved functioning. An Occupational Therapist is the professional who is specifically trained in the evaluation and treatment of Sensory Integration. The land-mark book written on sensory integration is called, “The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Revised Edition” (by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.; The Berkley Publishing Group and The Penguin Publishing Group; © 2005). A common theme shared among sensory integration techniques is that children are (humanely) exposed to the stimuli that they find noxious, for the purpose of “working-through” their sensory issues via the processes of sensitization or desensitization (depending on whether the particular child is under- or over-sensitive in a given sensory area).
What are some Sensory Integration techniques and activities?
Sensory Integration techniques and activities may include:
- For children who have Kinesthetic issues, use of movement may be indicated (e.g., swinging, rolling, jumping, sliding, riding a scooter, using a trampoline, see-saw, and/or a large ball to increase balance/stability).
- For children who have Proprioceptive issues, use of deep pressure may be indicated (e.g., brushing, massage, swaddling, pushing heavy loads).
- For children with Tactile issues, use of various textures for touching may be indicated (e.g., play dough, sand, rice, water, grass, whipped cream, pudding, finger-paints).
- Use of vibration (e.g., vibrating toys to increase awareness and/or tolerance of touch).
- For children with Auditory issues, use of various sounds may be indicated (to increase or decrease reaction to environmental sounds).
Probably the most commonly (or at least the most obviously) observed sensory difficulty relates to touch. If a child has difficulty with touch (either craving to excess or difficulty accepting/tolerating the feel of different textures), these are activities that may help decrease sensitivity:
- Rub objects over Junior’s body, using a firm touch. Items should differ in texture (rough, smooth) and possibly temperature (cool, warm). Some examples to use are: rough cloth such as a washcloth, smooth cloth such as velvet, a cool metal spoon, a warm, damp washcloth. You can do this before bathing/after bathing and before/after undressing.
- If Junior seems more sensitive to light touch, touch Junior lightly with soft, smooth objects (e.g., stuffed animals, powder puffs, feather). Rub them over different parts of the body and note responses. If Junior is very resistant at first, try a more firm touch, slowly moving to a lighter touch.
- Give Junior different textured items to touch and explore physically. Some suggestions are Play Doh, shaving cream, pudding, sand/dirt and objects that have indentations or holes in them. If there is resistance at first, put a little on the fingertips, slowly moving to putting it on the hole hand, and then finally encouraging Junior to place a hand into the material independently, and play with it.
- Play with water in a basin with different toys in the water. Encourage Junior to put both hands in and make splashing motions. Encourage Junior to keep hands submerged under the water for a short time by giving plastic bottles/cups that Junior needs to hold under the water to fill.
- Have Junior find specific objects (small toys/blocks) in textured materials such as uncooked rice, beans or sand. Bury the object in the material and encourage Junior to find it.
Is this a “Sensory Story” or a “Nonsense-Story”?
As indicated in the previous chapter (Is it a difficulty or a diagnosis? A delay or a disorder? A preference or a problem?), we should always use common-sense and exercise sound judgment in defining and diagnosing problems. When do auditory, tactile, vestibular, visual, proprioceptive, and/or kinesthetic difficulties elevate to the level of a “Sensory Integration Disorder”? While this is an easy question to answer with some children who have obvious and significant issues, this is a difficult question to answer with children who fall in the “gray area” and have more subtle or less intrusive issues. This question is best addressed by having an evaluation conducted by an occupational therapist. The good news is that with or without a formal diagnosis of Sensory Integration Disorder, if your child demonstrates difficulty in any area of sensory functioning you can help him by using some of the above techniques.