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What is Sensory Integration?

Children use their senses to discover and make sense of the world around them. Sensory exploration supports cognitive growth, motor skills, problem-solving and social interactions. However, you may have noticed that your child responds differently than expected to sound or touch, for example. This could be a sign that your child is struggling with sensory processing or making sense of the sensory input coming into their body.

Sensory integration refers to the process of receiving and organizing information from the eight senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, interoception (inside body feelings), vestibular (balance), and proprioception (muscle/joints). Kids who are significantly over-responsive or under-responsive to one or more of these senses may struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), resulting in hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. 

Hypersensitivity occurs when there is a sensory overload. The brain receives more input from the senses than it can organize and process. When a child is overstimulated, it can affect their ability to respond appropriately to everyday experiences and may cause them to avoid exposure to certain senses.

What Are the Signs?

Signs of hypersensitivity in relation to SPD:

  • Fearful of touches, even from family members
  • Unreasonable responses to sudden high-pitched or loud noises
  • Nervous in crowds and social settings
  • Intimidated by swings and other playground equipment
  • Afraid of climbing or falling 

On the other side, hyposensitivity occurs when a child is underwhelmed by the environment they’re in. They have little or no reaction to sensory input and may seek out sensory stimulation—making loud noises without purpose, or constantly touching people or textures.

Signs of hyposensitivity in relation to SPD:

  • Trouble sitting still and frequent fidgeting
  • Not mindful of personal space
  • Tremendous tolerance for pain and extreme temperatures
  • Unaware of own strength, resulting in harm to other children
  • Craves movement, especially jumping and spinning

In some cases, children can be both sensory “avoiders” and “seekers.” While SPD is frequently seen in kids with autism or ADHD, it is also found in children with no other known disorders.

Sensory integration intervention often focuses on three of the senses: tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive.

The Tactile System is the sense of touch. It helps us detect pain and temperature and determine the shape and texture of the things we come in contact with. A tactile avoider feels things more intensely than others and might be easily irritated by itchy tags in their clothing.

The Vestibular System is located in the inner ear, and provides information related to motion and balance. This system makes us aware if we are in danger of falling; therefore, a vestibular seeker may show no fear of heights.

The Proprioceptive System is tied to the control of movement. It provides awareness of posture, weight, and the position of our limbs in connection with our surroundings and other body parts. Proprioceptive avoiders may shy away from their peers and physical play.

How Does Occupational Therapy Help?

Research shows that one in six children exhibit sensory symptoms that disrupt their daily routine. Occupational therapy can benefit these kids struggling with sensory processing. An evaluation involving testing and observations is used to identify a disorder. If an issue is discovered, sensory integration therapy may provide coping skills for children who have too much or too little stimulation through their senses.

Dealing with sensory issues in your home can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. Occupational therapists can address problems related to sensory processing. Visit us at connectpediatrictherapy.com for more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our OTs.

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