What is Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing?

Sensory Integration (SI) is the neurological process that occurs in the central nervous system and involves receiving sensory information and turning it into functional responses. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a diagnostic term which describes an individual who is not able to effectively process and integrate sensory information from their environment. These pages will describe in more detail why the ability to integrate sensory information is key to our development and interaction with our world. At ATS Advanced Therapy Solutions, we can help you address challenges that you or your child may be experiencing.

What is Sensory Integration (SI)?

Sensory Integration is a dynamic process that occurs in the central nervous system and involves receiving sensory information and turning it into functional responses. All day, every day, we receive sensory information through touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell, body position, and movement and balance.

Sensory Integration “sorts, orders, and eventually puts all of the individual sensory inputs together into a whole brain function” (Ayres 1979). “When the functions of the brain are whole and balanced, body movements are highly adaptive, learning is easy, and good behavior is a natural outcome” (Ayres 1979), resulting in successful interaction in all aspects of daily life, at home, at school, at play, at work, and during social interactions.

Our Seven Senses

Information is received through seven primary senses that work in combination to allow us to feel safe, have fun, to learn and to interact successfully within our environment.

The tactile system provides information about the shape, size, and texture of objects. This information helps us to understand our surroundings, manipulate objects, and use tools proficiently. When you put your hand in your pocket and select a quarter from an assortment of change, you are using tactile discrimination.

Integrating Information from the Senses

Considering all of the sensory modalities involved, it is truly amazing that one brain can organize all of the information flooding in simultaneously and respond to the demands of the environment. The complex nature of this interaction is illustrated in the following example: Michael receives the instruction “Please put on your coat.” In order to comply, he must:

  • focus his attention on the speaker and hear what that person says
  • screen out incoming information about other things going on around him
  • see the coat and adequately make a plan for how to begin
  • see the armholes and sense muscle and joint positions in order to put his arms into the openings
  • screen out incoming information about other things going on around him
  • feel, with touch awareness, that the coat is on his body correctly
  • use motor planning, touch awareness, and fine motor skills to zip or button the coat

In order to accomplish this seemingly simple task, the nervous system must integrate (focus, screen, sort, and respond to) sensory information from many different sources. Imagine the amount of sensory integration needed to ride a bicycle, drive a car, participate in a soccer game, or pay attention in an active classroom. Individuals who have difficulties with all or part of this process face significant challenges when engaging in daily functional activities.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder SPD?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a diagnostic term which describes an individual who is not able to effectively process and integrate sensory information from their environment. Information from one’s senses (e.g. sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, movement, proprioceptive and vestibular inputs) is not organized appropriately for the individual to carry out activities and interact with the environment as we would expect. An individual may have difficulty integrating information from one sensory system or a variety of sensory systems.

Which sensory systems are impacted and how an individual responds to this sensory information results in how the disorder presents itself in any given person. Most of us carry out our daily activities with ease, often without even thinking about them. We constantly detect, regulate, interpret and respond to sensory input. Through no fault of their own, individuals with SPD are not able to do this successfully. They consequently often have immense difficulty with the simplest daily task and need to exert much effort throughout their day to carry out the demands that are placed on them. This may be a child attending a playgroup who has difficulty engaging in exploration and social interaction; to an adult who struggles to function in her office environment and meet the work and social demands faced each day.

Imagine yourself in a world where something as basic as the pull of gravity or the touch of other people is perceived as unreliable, inconsistent, or threatening. You would not feel secure and safe, you might not be able to have fun, and your self-esteem might be compromised as you realized that you were not able to do things as well as your peers. As individuals, we all like different things, dislike some other things, and avoid certain things, but for individuals with SPD their difficulty integrating sensory information often leads to feelings of discomfort and fear, or may lead to a need to seek out more sensory experiences to feel organized and able to engage.

SPD can result in delays in motor skills and problems with self-regulation, attention, and behavior that can affect performance in school, at home, with peers, and during leisure and work activities. The diagnosis of SPD should only be made if the sensory processing difficulties impair daily routines, roles or functional, skilled performance. Diagnosing SPD can be challenging as this disorder includes a variety of different manifestations. Areas of difficulty include sensory modulation dysfunction (also known as sensory defensiveness), sensory discrimination difficulties, praxis disorders and postural-ocular challenges.

These are not clear-cut subgroups and many individuals experience difficulties in a number of these areas. Many researchers and clinicians are involved in identifying subgroups of Sensory Processing Dysfunction to aid in its recognition and to establish the most effective treatment models.

Sensory modulation is the ability to assign meaning and value to sensory experiences in order to screen out irrelevant sensory information and to respond appropriately to meaningful sensory input. It also involves the ability to habituate quickly following a sensory input that is arousing, so that the individual can rapidly return to involvement in age appropriate activities.

An individual who attaches too much relevance to non-essential input, is over-sensitive to sensory inputs, or perceives inputs others typically find benign or pleasurable as negative or painful is considered to be sensory defensive. Often individuals will have problems with modulation of several sensory inputs such as touch and auditory inputs. They may respond to these inputs with distractibility or defensiveness resulting in flight, fright or fight behaviors.

Sensory discrimination is the ability to accurately identify and understand the specific types and qualities of sensory input and then interpret the information for skill development. Problems with discrimination may be exhibited as gross and fine motor skill delays, postural control, difficulties in motor planning and coordination, and contribute to problems in social interactions.

Discrimination difficulties may also impact an individual’s arousal level, especially when encountering a challenging skillful activity. Problems in sensory discrimination are usually sensory specific, although an individual may demonstrate problems in more than one sensory area. Individuals typically respond to problems in discrimination with decreased functional skill performance and decreased self-esteem.

Postural-ocular control is the ability to stabilize the trunk and proximal joints during motor action. It is the foundation for development of both gross and fine motor skill and allows for safety and security while moving. It allows once to have a stable base of support for functional activities and skills, including the ability to use the eyes to gather information from the environment.

Praxis disorders refer to the ability to generate, organize, sequence, and execute motor activities. Praxis is necessary to respond adaptively and effectively to changes in the environment. It is essential for planning motor actions, exploratory play, and problem solving interactions with the physical and social environment. Effective praxis results from efficient sensory discrimination since the body must have appropriate sensory information to interact with the environment.

Recognizing SPD Across All Ages

  • Have difficulty consoling self and/or be unusually fussy
  • Be unable to bring hands together and bang toys
  • Be slow to roll over, creep, sit or stand
  • Cry or becomes tense when moved through space
  • Have difficulty tolerating tummy time
  • Be overly active, seeking excessive movement
  • Be unable to settle down and/or have sleep difficulties