By: JJ Mejasic, OTR/L

Sensory integration is the process by which we receive information through our various senses, organize this information, and then use it efficiently to participate in activities throughout our day. When we think about our senses, we often think there are five senses in which we receive information- hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. However, we also receive information from two other additional senses- the proprioceptive sense and the vestibular sense.

  • The proprioceptive sense, otherwise known as the body awareness sense, provides us with information regarding where body parts are in relation to each other and the space around us. It also gives us information about how much force we must use in various activities throughout our day, such as how much force is needed to hold a pencil versus opening a door.
  • The vestibular sense, known as the balance or movement sense, gives information regarding where our body and head are in space. This particular sense assists in how one stays upright as they walk, stand, and sit.

Most activities that we participate in throughout our day require us to use a combination of different senses at the same time. For example, as a toddler sits and finger paints at a table, they are using touch to explore the paint with their hands, thus using proprioception to use the appropriate amount of force when painting on the paper, in addition to using the vestibular sense to sit upright in their chair. As children grow, they learn how to efficiently take in sensory information from the world around them, process it all at the same time, and focus their attention on relevant sensations while ignoring others.

Children who experience Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have difficulty with integrating sensory information received by their central nervous system in order to produce appropriate motor and behavior responses. Sensory Processing Disorder manifests itself in a variety of ways. How occupational therapists approach treatment depends upon a variety of different factors; first and foremost is determining whether a child’s behavior is sensory avoiding or sensory seeking. These distinct responses often look like this:

Sensory Avoidant Behaviors:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Frequently covering ears in response to external noises
  • Avoiding bright lights
  • Resisting or avoiding movement activities
  • Overly sensitive to clothing textures
  • Expressing a dislike of being messy
  • Often described as a “picky eater”
  • Overly cautious

Sensory Seeking Behaviors:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Seeking out movement
  • Described as “always being on the go”
  • Constantly touching things around them
  • Messy eating
  • Exhibiting low safety awareness and is impulsive
  • Accident prone
  • Taking excessive risk in play

Every child has a different sensory make-up. When a child’s sensory make-up falls outside the expected norm, this can then interfere with a child’s development and it is unlikely that it will resolve on its own without sensory integration treatment. Early identification and treatment through occupational therapy can help children better understand the world around them and take control of managing their unique sensitivities.

If you would like to learn more about sensory integration or would like to see how our therapists can help your child, contact us today!