Sensory Integration: What it Is and How to Help

Sensory Integration: What it Is and How to Help

Have you ever wondered why the fast, spinning rides that you repeatedly enjoyed as a child, now make your head spin and your stomach turn? As we mature, our brain’s ability to organize and interpret information from our senses (touch, taste, smell, move- ment, sight, sound, and body awareness) improves. This is a process called sensory integration. For most children, sensory integration occurs automatically. These children naturally seek out the sensory information they need to grow and mature. Some children do not. Some children experience Dysfunction of Sensory Integration (DSI).

Children, who have had a tough start in life may be at risk for Dysfunction of Sensory Integration. This may be due to early environmental circumstances, prenata, or medical factors that predispose a child to altered sensory input during the first year of life. A large amount of sensory integration occurs during the first year of life. The integration of simple sensory information becomes the basis for more complex tasks as a child develops. For example, an infant integrates information from vision, touch, and body awareness to locate and reach for a brightly colored toy held above her. Sensory information comes to the brain as input from sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch, movement, and body position.

The touch (tactile) system is highly responsive during the first years of life. It allows us to determine if we are being touched and to locate that touch (such as when a fly lands on our leg). The tactile system also provides us with the ability to react when the touch input is harmful (such as a hot or sharp surface). When a touch sensation is provided, our brain registers the sensation and determines a reaction (such as withdrawing a hand from hot water or swatting away a fly).

The movement (vestibular) system is also highly responsive during the first years of life. It informs our brain about the direction and position we are holding/moving in space and provides the foundation for coordination, balance, eye movements, and posture.

Proprioception is the term used for the sense of body position. It provides information about the position of our body in space. It allows us to perform tasks such as turning on a light switch in the middle of the night.

Dysfunction of Sensory Integration occurs when sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should. It may result in problems with learning, behavior, or development.

Older children with Dysfunction of Sensory Integration usually exhibit more than one of the following symptoms:

  • Over or under-reactive to touch, movement, sights, sounds, food textures, or tastes
  • Easily distracted
  • Unusually high or low activity level
  • Clumsiness or difficulty with coordination
  • Difficulty making transitions or accepting change in routine
  • Inability to unwind or calm self
  • Poor self-concept
  • Difficulty with academic achievement
  • Social and/or emotional problems
  • Speech, language or motor delays

Younger children with Dysfunction of Sensory Integration usually exhibit more than one of the following symptoms:

  • Poor muscle tone
  • Slow to achieve developmental milestones
  • Unusually fussy, difficult to console
  • Failure to explore the environment
  • Difficulty tolerating changes in position
  • Resistance to being held or cuddled
  • Difficulty with sleep
  • Difficulty with sucking

Not all children who have experienced less than ideal early years will have Dysfunction of Sensory Integration. Often, symptoms may be present right after placement, during the transition to a new environment. Dysfunction of Sensory Integration usually presents as a pattern of symptoms that persist well beyond the initial period of transition.

Immediately following placement, kincare providers can begin to provide activities to promote a sensory rich environment. A variety of sensory experiences should be incorporated into the child’s everyday routine, introducing new activities slowly. Provide an opportunity and encourage participation, but do not force the child to perform. A list of suggested activities appears on the next page.

If you suspect your child may have Dysfunction of Sensory Integration, an evaluation may be beneficial. Occupational therapists with training in sensory integration can provide evaluations and develop individualized treatment programs to help children who struggle with the world around them.

Suggestions for Activites 

for children with Dysfunction of Sensory Integration

Caution should be used regarding the child’s age and ability when choosing activities.

Touch Activities

  • Finding small toys in sand or a con- tainer filled with macaroni or beads
  • Rubbing with lotions, powders or towels
  • Finger-painting, playing in pudding
  • Dress up activities
  • Building forts with blankets, towels, or sheets
  • Movement Activities
  • Playgrounds or backyard equipment — swing sets, slides, tire swings
  • Gym programs
  • Riding toys
  • Sit ‘n spin or spinning activities and games
  • Gentle bouncing on an old mattress, cushions, lap, or when held securely on a ball.

(Body Awareness) Activities

  • Crawling and climbing
  • Wheelbarrow walking, jumping, hop- scotch
  • Tug of war or obstacle courses
  •  Pushing or pulling weighted objects such as a wagon, laundry baskets, filled buckets
  • Position games such as Twister or Simon Says Visual Activities
  • Punching bags, balls, balloons, and bubbles
  • Target games such as tee ball, tennis, or soccer
  • Puzzles, tracing, dot to dot, mazes
  • Scissor activities
  • Mobiles

Sound Activities

  • Whistles, bells, and horns
  • Listening to stories, tapes, and songs • Repeating sequence of sounds
  • Naming sounds for animals
  • Rhythmic games and activities 

This article was shared by EMK Press. EMK Press publishes a variety of books and helpful resources for families as they evolve on the journey of parenting.

 Barbara Elleman, OTR/L, BCP, works in the occupational and physical therapy department at the International Adoption Center located at Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. This article originally was printed in Adoption Parenting Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections. 

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