Sensory Integration

What is Sensory Integration?

Sensory integration is the ability to process and integrate sensations from the environment to our body, and movement.  Sensory integration (SI) is a good thing we all do.

Our five basic sensory systems that you may already know:

  • Visual System
  • Auditory System
  • Olfactory (smell) System
  • Gustatory (taste) System
  • Tactile (touch) System

With the exception of our tactile system, we have our less familiar sensory systems:

Tactile (Touch).  Our sense of touch with proprioception gives us a map of our bodies at all times.

Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) system.  The vestibular system allows us to coordinate movements for balance and posture.  

Proprioceptive (sensations from muscles and joints of body) system.  Proprioception input is provided when our joints are compressed.

Interoception (gives us information regarding the internal condition of our body).  Interoceptive awareness allows us to notice a sensation, connect the sensation to meaning, and regulate the sensation with an action.

Boys Are Playing

Sensory Systems: Bumps in the Road

Sensory integration deficits have varied presentations in each child, dependent on which systems are affected. Children may present with sensitivities and/or decreased balance, coordination, posture, body awareness, motor planning, attention and concentration.

SI explains the foundations to adaptive and efficient human behavior. Information from sensory systems allow us to respond to input we receive from the environment and our bodies. The knowledge of our sensory systems is basic science and has been proven for centuries. However, it was Jean Ayres who linked the integration of foundational sensory systems to our ability to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

Jane Ayres, Phd, otr/l

  • Developed sensory integration (SI) theory to treat underlying sensory difficulties
  • She was the first to link subtle sensory differences to learning, behavior, emotional, and motor difficulties and dedicated her life to understanding them.
  • Since her passing, many people moved her theory forward resulting in varied interpretations of the impact of sensory integration on behavior.

Intervention begins with an occupational therapy evaluation performed by a sensory integration trained therapist.  A thorough assessment of each sensory system and their impact on daily functioning will be completed.

Applying sensory integration Principles to the home environment

1. Fostering a therapeutic alliance

Building a connection with your child allows for a sense of trust and emotional safety which promotes engagement in novel and challenging tasks.

When your child is experiencing stress: (1) take a deep breath, (2) take inventory of your emotional state, (3) do what is needed to organize yourself, and (4) then connect with your child in a way that promotes self-regulation and learning. The emotional support a child receives through strong connection to caregivers will allow them to persevere through challenging tasks.

2. Creating a play context

Use your child’s intrinsic motivation and naturally playful behavior to guide activity choices. Building on what comes naturally to them will increase creativity, imagination, and learning.

Follow  your child's lead keeping in mind the foundational elements of play. True play has no rules, no expectations, is spontaneous, is intrinsically motivating, and done merely for the sake of enjoyment.

3. Collaborating on activity choices

Collaborate with your child when brainstorming activities and allow your child to make mistakes and learn from the outcomes.

Actively listen to your child while they are involved in choosing and guiding the activity. Do not pre-select the activity without your child’s involvement. Many times, allowing for mistakes to occur provides opportunities for active problem solving, in turn, fostering learning and growth.

4. Activities should elicit an adaptive response

An adaptive response occurs and can be seen when your child responds actively and purposefully to meeting a challenge. Adaptive responses indicate neuronal changes, they are a sign that sensory information is being integrated and growth is occurring. Adaptive responses are wide and varied and will change as your child progresses.

Some examples of an adaptive response:

  • Eye contact
  • Getting dressed
  • Trying a new food
  • Following directions              
  • Participating in a novel task
  • Navigating the environment
  • Catching a ball

When playing with your child, continuously monitor the activity. When appropriate, work with your child to change the environment , increase or decrease the challenge, an/or modify your interactions (i.e., voice, eye contact, proximity). These adaptations and modifications will support persistence through challenging tasks

5. Presenting sensory opportunities

Progress and learning occurs more efficiently when multiple sensory systems are engaged.

Keep in mind all the sensory systems when collaborating with your child for activities. Activities need to be wide and varied in sensory elements; from bumping, jumping, and crashing to painting, building, and crafts.

6.  Supporting self-regulation

Use information from your child's sensory preferences to promote self-regulation for improved attention and engagement in tasks . It is important to acknowledge that your child's individual sensory needs will determine which activities are used to promote regulation.

Children need daily sensory rich and movement based activities for development and self-regulation. Keep in mind, activities that may be stimulating for some may be calming for others. Generally speaking, proprioception, deep pressure, and rhythmic movement will help promote self-regulation.

7. Providing the Just-right challenge and maximizing success

During activities, continuously balance the level of difficulty for your child. Activities that provide a “just-right” challenge will elicit positive changes and promote growth.

Start with an activity level that allows for success and then modify (ramping up/down the demand as needed) in order to provide the ideal challenge for your child.

8. Ensuring physical safety

Ensure your child is safe during activities. When the activity requires, maintain close proximity to maximize safety.

When your child is participating in activities, anticipate any safety concerns, even minimal ones, and account for them.

9. Parent Education

We acknowledge that true and efficient progress occurs when multiple caregivers implement changes across environments to promote sensory integration and self regulation.

When you are able to understand sensory integration concepts, you can better serve your child by implementing strategies across all environments and situations to make lasting changes.

We are in this together!

Together we will help empower your child to play more, do more, and achieve more!