Understanding and Identifying Sensory Integration Issues - June 2016

By Tyack Health Occupational Therapist Marga Grey

We all have different sensors that provide information to our brain about our bodies and our environment. The brain uses this information to ensure that we are safe by sending messages to different parts of our body in order to react appropriately. This reaction can be automatic, e.g. to pull your hand away from a hot stove or the reaction can also be planned, e.g. to close the window when you are cold.

We also have senses that provide information about our body; these are the sense of touch, the sense of proprioception or position of the body, the sense of movement, and the sense of taste and texture in the mouth. The senses that provide information about the environment are vision, auditory or hearing and smell.

To ensure that the brain processes all of the sensations from the body and the environment effectively to provide the correct reactions, the senses should be developed to perceive correctly. The process of perceiving sensations in the body and the environment, the integration in the brain and the appropriate reactions or behaviour is called sensory integration.

Problems with this process, called sensory integration, can create problems in the reactions to different stimuli and thus in the behaviour. One notices this in children as they haven't learnt effective ways to cope or to avoid.

Many adults have problems with sensory processing as well but they have learnt to avoid specific stimuli to prevent adverse reactions, e.g. many adults do not enjoy noisy environments and need quiet periods during the day or evening. Others do not cope with strong smells or tastes and prefer bland food. Others might be seeking movement and might find it difficult to sit still for periods of time. These adults have often chosen work and hobbies to suite their "sensory needs". The person in need of movement might work as a labourer, a teacher, a free-lance journalist - all of which provide the opportunity to move regularly throughout the working hours. Others, also in need of movement, might choose to be active in sport after work.

This is seen as "normal" and appropriate. However, in children, we often find that they do not have the freedom to make these choices, and worse they do not understand their own needs and thus cannot make the right choices to meet their sensory needs. These children find it difficult to cope in different environments, e.g. with high noise levels (but they often make a lot of noise because they can handle noises that they can control) or visually busy places such as a supermarket. They can have emotional reactions and meltdowns as they can be overwhelmed by too many sensations.

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