Sensory processing, also referred to as Sensory Integration (SI) is the ability to organize sensory information for ongoing use. It refers to the way that the nervous system receives and processes information from all the senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organizes, or integrates that information, and then responds in a meaningful way. Sensory Processing provides the necessary foundation for more complex learning and behavior.
For most of us, effective sensory processing occurs automatically, unconsciously, and without effort. For most children, sensory processing develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities facilitating the ability to readily adapt to a variety of environments; maintain attention, alertness, and even-keeled behavior; and to motor plan and learn. But for some children, dysfunction in the central nervous system makes it difficult to perceive sensation accurately and/or respond to sensory information in a meaningful, consistent way. The process is inefficient, demands undue effort and attention and is often unsuccessful. The inability to adequately analyze, organize and integrate sensory information was formerly called Sensory Integration Dysfunction, (SID).
The results of SPD may be evident in challenges in learning, development, or behavior. Dr. A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., an occupational therapist, pioneered the theory of Sensory Integration to explain the relationship between behavior and neural functioning. Her work continues to be developed and refined through research within the field of occupational therapy and in other fields including neuropsychology, neurology, physiology and child development.
Some of the frequent signs of Sensory Processing Disorder include:
- Overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
- Under reactive to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
- Easily distracted
- Difficulty regulating behavior
- Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low
- Physical clumsiness or apparent carelessness
- Impulsive, lacking in self control
- Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
- Inability to unwind or calm self
- Poor self concept
- Delays in speech, language, or motor skills
- Delays in academic achievement
- Social and/or emotional problems
If you suspect that your child has a sensory processing disorder, an evaluation can be conducted by a qualified occupational therapist using a sensory history, standardized testing and clinical observations. Some symptoms of SPD can overlap with other diagnoses. The evaluation process should help the occupational therapist determine if your child has SPD.
After carefully analyzing test results and other assessment data along with information from other professionals and parents, the therapist will make recommendations regarding appropriate treatment. Sensory Integration treatment follows the child’s lead using activities that challenge his or her ability to respond appropriately to sensory input by making a successful, organized response. When the child actively engages in meaningful activities that provide the intensity, duration, and quality of sensation his or her central nervous system requires, integration occurs, adaptive behaviors improve, and learning takes place. Treatment helps the child build a strong foundation to meet the demands of more complex learning and skills. Sensory Integration treatment also helps the child develop the underlying skills necessary to interact successfully in social situations and develop strong self-esteem.
The most important step in promoting sensory processing in children is to recognize the pervasive role that it plays in child development. By learning more about sensory processing, parents, educators and caregivers can provide an enriched environment that will foster health, growth and maturation.