It is believed that sensory information is one of the first areas to fully develop in an infant's brain. We rarely stop to think how important our five senses are in terms of providing us with information about the world. For example, our senses tell us when there is a bug crawling up our leg, if we are going to fall, and whether there is smoke in the room. Without the ability to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste we would live in complete isolation, unable to not only sense, but also to think and learn due to a lack of experience with which to develop ideas. When we discuss sensory integration we add to it the two senses of vestibular (responses to movement) and proprioception (body awareness). Each sensory system has its own specific receptor that specializes in optimal responses to a specific type of sensation.
Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound, and the pull of gravity. The process of the brain organizing and interpreting this information is called sensory integration. Sensory integration provides a crucial foundation for later, more complex learning and behavior.
The senses work together. Each sense works with the others to form a composite picture of who we are physically, where we are, and what is going on around us. Sensory integration is the critical function of the brain that is responsible for producing this composite picture. It is the organization of sensory information for on-going use. In order to achieve developmental milestones, children must first be able to intake sensory input, process it, and than respond appropriately within seconds. For most of us, effective sensory integration occurs automatically and subconsciously, without effort. We do not tend to think of all the movements necessary to perform efficiently throughout our day it would be exhausting. For the child with special needs, the process is often inefficient, demanding effort and attention with no guarantee of accuracy. When this occurs, the goals they strive for are not easily attained.
For most children, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. Motor planning ability is a natural outcome of the process, as is the ability to adapt to incoming sensations. But for people with disabilities, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should.
Good sensory processing enables all the impulses to flow easily and reach their destination quickly. Sensory integrative dysfunction is a sort of ‘traffic jam’ in the brain. Some bits of sensory information get ‘tied up in traffic’, and certain parts of the brain do not get the sensory information they need to function properly. The ability to attend to a task depends on the ability to screen out, or inhibit, nonessential sensory information, background noises, or visual information.
The child with special needs may frequently respond to or register sensory information without this screening ability and is considered distractible, hyperactive, or uninhibited. These children are always "on the alert" and constantly asking about or orienting to sensory input that others ignore (e.g. refrigerator motor, heater fan, distant airplane, etc.). Other children may fail to register unique sensory input and are unresponsive to stimuli. For example, the child may not turn around or respond when her/his name is called. One parent stated that her child with special needs was oblivious and unresponsive to a loud noise in the same room but immediately responded when he heard his favorite television show in the other room.
The main form of sensory integration therapy is a type of therapy that places a child in a room specifically designed to stimulate and challenge all of the senses. During the session, the facilitator works closely with the child to provide a level of sensory stimulation that the child can cope with, and encourage movement within the room.
Sensory integration therapy is driven by four main principles:
• Just Right Challenge (the child must be able to successfully meet the challenges that are presented through playful activities)
• Adaptive Response (the child adapts his behavior with new and useful strategies in response to the challenges presented)
• Active Engagement (the child will want to participate because the activities are fun)
• Child Directed (the child's preferences are used to initiate therapeutic experiences within the session).
Children with lower sensitivity (hyposensitivity) may be exposed to strong sensations such as stroking with a brush, vibrations or rubbing. Play may involve a range of materials to stimulate the senses such as play dough or finger painting.
Children with heightened sensitivity (hypersensitivity) may be exposed to peaceful activities including quiet music and gentle rocking in a softly lit room. Treats and rewards may be used to encourage children to tolerate activities they would normally avoid.