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Sensory Integration: How our sensory systems impact overall development


As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist I work within a variety of developmental domains. Most who think about Occupational Therapy (OT) think gross motor coordination and handwriting support. Yes your absolutely right however before we can even dive into these skills children must have an ability to understand the sensory information being received from all around them. The foundation of our brain development starts with our sensory systems; how we accept sensory stimuli, process the information to react according to what the environment has presented.

Throughout my journey as a therapist I have experienced and supported children being challenged by the communication between their sensory systems, their brain processing, and their reactions. It is my goal as an OT to help guide parents to gain a deeper understanding of how Sensory Integration plays a part in our development along with how to support our children to build strong sensory brain connections.


Lets start at the beginning.


How do we define Sensory Integration?

Sensory Integration is about how our brain receives and processes sensory information so that we can do the things we need to do in our everyday life. Our understanding of Sensory Integration was initially developed in the late 60s and 70s by Jean Ayres, an OT and psychologist with a deep connection to understanding neuroscience. She was interested in explaining how difficulties with receiving and processing sensory information from one’s body and environments could relate to difficulties at school or using one’s body to engage in everyday life.


How does Sensory Integration work?

The different parts of our body that receive sensory information from our environment ( such as skin, eyes, ears) send this information up to our brain. Our brain interprets the information it receives, compares it to other information in our memory and then the brain uses all this information to help us respond to our environment. As you can imagine Sensory Integration is important in all the things we engage in, such as dressing, eating, socializing and learning.

What are our 8 sensory systems…. Yes that’s right we have 8!

When supporting Sensory Integration we are working with 8 sensory systems. You can probably immediately think of 5: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste however the other 3 sensory systems are equally if not more important to nurture and support: proprioception, vestibular and interoception.


Lets define these last 3 sensory systems.


Proprioception: our muscles and joints have tiny sensory receptors that tell our brain where our body parts are in space, also how much force-pressure-pace our muscles require to complete specific tasks. How do we know how much force to use when throwing a ball across a field compared to a friend sitting right beside us, how much force we need to use through our writing tool or when putting a spoon in your mouth, you don’t need to look at the spoon to see where it is or feel for your mouth to know where to place the spoon; you know where your hand is in relation to your mouth. Proprioception uses the sensory information to plan movements so that you can coordinate your body.

Vestibular: In our inner ear we have small, fluid filled canals, the fluid in these canals moves every time we move our head. Receptors in these canals pick up the direction of movement and send this information on to our brains. So we know if we are moving backwards, forwards, side to side, tilting our head up, turning around or moving up and down. Similar to proprioceptive processing, our brain uses vestibular input to plan for movements and help maintain balance and equilibrium.

Interoception: this is a fairly new area for discussion in Sensory Integration; interoception is how our body tells our brain what is going on inside our body, when we are hungry or feel full, when our heart is beating fast or when we have that sensation of butterflies in our stomach. Interoception supports our ability to use our body, concentrate, develop self-esteem and confidence as well as having self-control and accessing academic skills.


The 4 main Sensory Integration barriers I support as an Occupational Therapist:


1. Sensory Modulation Barriers: this occurs when our brain either over responds to, or under responds to sensory information. For example, if someone over responds to touch they may be very aware of the label on the back of their clothes, vrs under-responsive a child may not notice someone tapping them on the shoulder. We could all say we have similar experiences, but for some children the degree to which their brain under or over responds impacts on their ability to do the things they need to do in everyday life.

2. Sensory Discrimination and Perceptual Barriers: this is when the brain has difficulties with making sense of the sensory information it receives. A child may struggle to interpret subtle differences in the sense. For example, being able to feel two different points of touch that are close together- this is useful when we are engaging in things like doing up buttons. The brain also has difficulty with giving meaning to the information it is receiving. If these problems are within proprioceptive processing a child can seem clumsy or use too much or too little force when doing activities. Children with visual perceptual problems may have difficulties with finding objects in cluttered environments or finding a word on a page.

3. Vestibular-Bilateral Functional Barriers: These barriers are a result of an under-developed vestibular sensory system and can result in poor balance and challenges with coordinating two sides of the body. It is imperative that we develop coordination of both sides of our body through gross motor movements as this establishes left and right brain communication. Such communication is required to access higher level functioning and executive functioning skills; memory, problem solving, organization and sequencing, initiation.

4. Praxis Barriers: Praxis is how our brain plans for and carries our movements we have not done before. For children this could be learning to jump. In my experience children can struggle with somato-dyspraxia: when a child has problems with movement as well as processing touch and proprioceptive sensory input and secondly visuo-dyspraxia; when a child has problem with movement and visual sensory processing. Both resulting in children looking clumsy and awkward in their movements.

How, as parents, can we manage and support Sensory Integration development?


For many children small adjustments to their environment or the way they are allowed to move at home and school can make a huge difference to how they manage their day to day life.

As parents creating sensory rich experiences for our children, through movement, messy play, multi-sensory activities ( following a workout video; auditory + movement, or participating in cooking; reading instructions and engaging in hands-on cooking/baking), playground and nature adventures are all great activities that support Sensory Integration development.

As most of you know I am a HUGE advocate for movement, movement, movement. Through movement, across various environments, we automatically provide our sensory systems, all 8 of them, input that strengthens the sensory-brain-reaction process. Challenge your children to move their bodies in various ways; jumping, crawling, bear-walking, crab-walking, walking across various textures; grass, across stones, on sand, climbing; playground equipment, trees, climbing walls and swinging are fantastic starting points to support Sensory Integration. The more we move the stronger our body-brain connections become.


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