Sensory integration refers to different strategies or techniques used to meet, raise, or lower internal sensory needs. Sensory integration therapy is used to help children learn to use all their senses together. From a very young age, babies will keep engaging their senses to learn about the world around them. This is all part of development. It’s claimed that this therapy can improve challenging behavior or repetitive behavior. These behaviors can be related to difficulties with processing sensory information.
The 5 known senses are:
- Sight (Vision)
- Hearing (Auditory)
- Smell (Olfactory)
- Taste (Gustatory)
- Touch (Tactile)
2 Additional Senses:
- Vestibular (Movement): the movement and balance sense, which gives us information about where our head and body are in space. Helps us stay upright when we sit, stand, and walk.
- Proprioception (Body Position): the body awareness sense, which tells us where our body parts are relative to each other. It also gives us information about how much force to use, allowing us to do something like crack an egg while not crushing the egg in our hands.
Sensory integration focuses primarily on three basic senses–tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive.
Tactile / Touch
Tactile defensiveness is a condition in which an individual is extremely sensitive to light touch. Theoretically, when the tactile system is immature and working improperly, abnormal neural signals are sent to the cortex in the brain which can interfere with other brain processes.
Signs of a dysfunction in the tactile
- withdraws from being touched
- refuses to eat certain ‘textured’ foods
- refuses to wear certain types of clothing
- complains about having one’s hair or face washed
- avoids getting one’s hands dirty (i.e., glue, sand, mud, finger paint)
- uses one’s fingertips rather than whole hands to manipulate objects
Vestibular / Movement
The vestibular system refers to structures within the inner ear (the semi-circular canals) that detect movement and changes in the position of the head.
Signs of a dysfunction in the vestibular system
- fearful reactions to ordinary movement activities (e.g., swings, slides, ramps, inclines)
- excessive body whirling, jumping, and/or spinning called hypo-reactive vestibular system
Proprioceptive / Body Position
The proprioceptive system refers to components of muscles, joints, and tendons that provide a person with a subconscious awareness of body position.
Signs of proprioceptive disorder
- falling when you walk across uneven surfaces
- don’t understand your own strength
- uncoordinated movement, such as finding it hard to walk straight
- balance issues, which can lead to problems when you walk up or down stairs or cause you to fall easily
How effective are sensory integration therapies?
Evaluation and treatment of basic sensory integrative processes are performed by occupational therapists and/or physical therapists. The therapist’s general goals are:
- to provide the child with sensory information which helps organize the central nervous system,
- to assist the child in inhibiting and/or modulating sensory information, and
- to assist the child in processing a more organized response to sensory stimuli.
Although there are scientific studies to show that children with ASDs are more likely to have sensory-processing problems, the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy as a therapy for ASDs is limited and inconclusive.