Commonly Used Terminology

The term sensory integration dysfunction (DSI) was first used in 1963 by Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and developmental psychologist who also had postdoctoral training in neuroscience. She explored and researched the association between sensory processing and the behavior of children with learning, developmental, emotional, and other disabilities which she reported in numerous scientific journals and later in her groundbreaking book, Sensory Integration and Learning DisordersAyres theorized that impaired sensory processing might result in various functional problems, which she labeled sensory integration dysfunction. The condition was initially based on studies using the Southern California Sensory Integration Tests and later from studies using the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) and related clinical observations.

Since Dr. Ayres first proposed the theory of sensory integration, many theorists, researchers and clinicians have further developed her theory.  Ayres’s original term, sensory integration dysfunction (DSI)was previously used to refer to the disorder of sensory processing and sensory integration.  However, this term was often confused with the theoretical frame of reference, assessment process and intervention model used with this problem.  Thus, as information on sensory processing grew it became evident that it was important to differentiate the terminology for diagnosis of problems associated with sensory integration deficits from that associated with intervention theory and techniques.  Sensory Processing Disorder was therefore proposed as a diagnostic term which refers to the disorders resulting from poor sensory processing and sensory integration.  This new diagnostic terminology, along with a diagnostic typology, was proposed and submitted for inclusion into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV–TR of the American Psychiatric Association (2000), due out in 2012. The hope is that recognition of SPD as a formal diagnosis will lead to more opportunities for funding for research, more effective interventions and more comprehensive insurance coverage.

Because of the evolving nature of sensory integration theory and practice, other terms related to SPD may be familiar and found in the literature.

Sensory integration theory

Sensory integration theory refers to the theoretical neurologically-based constructs that discuss how the brain processes sensation and impacts on motor, behavior, emotion, and attention responses.  This is a brain-behavior theory.

Sensory integration assessment

Sensory integration assessment is a specialized occupational therapy assessment which is conducted from a sensory integration theory frame of reference.  The evaluation process assesses how a person processes (discriminates and modulates) sensory information; how that sensory processing impacts on foundational mechanisms such as postural-ocular skills, visual perceptual skills, hand skills and handwriting; and how it affects fine and gross motor skills, as well as praxis abilities for daily life functioning.

Sensory integration intervention

Sensory integration intervention is a specific intervention model based on sensory integration theory whereby the provision of enhanced sensory information, in the context of meaningful and purposeful activities is believed to enhance the development of an individual’s nervous system functioning.  Ayres® Sensory Integration intervention is a unique intervention that is child/ person directed and takes place in a playful, loving and fun environment.

Developmental Coordination Disorder

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a DSM-IV diagnosis for a motor coordination disorder.  This term is used frequently in research on motor coordination problems in children and is increasingly used by physicians.  It is very commonly used in Great Britain and in Europe.  DCD is characterized by a motor coordination problem which results in functional difficulties.  Currently, this diagnosis cannot be given in conjunction with autism spectrum disorder.  Within the sensory integration framework, DCD is viewed as an umbrella term which includes praxis disorders of motor planning, bilateral coordination and projected action sequences.


Proprioception is the sensory information generated by a person’s joints and muscles.  It tells a person where their body parts are in space.  It is important for force regulation, control of posture and body awareness.  It is also an important sensory input for promoting self-regulation.  Proprioception works in conjunction with both the tactile and the vestibular sensory systems.


Vestibular sensory inputs refer to a person’s movement sense.  This is sensory information from the inner ear that is responsible for balance.  It detects and processes information in all planes of movement.  In addition to balance, the vestibular system controls one’s protective responses, one’s posture, and works in tandem with one’s visual system.  It also has a strong influence on emotions and self-regulation.