Sensory Integration (SI) is a term thrown around by therapists very often when dealing with paediatric and specifically special paediatric needs. Being an Occupational Therapist and learning more about SI has not only improved my therapy skills, but helped me to understand and better interact with learners with special needs. The little knowledge I have picked up from our Head of Department, Nicole (who is SI certified) has made such a profound impact on me that I wish to share it with everyone in the hopes that it will enlighten you, as I feel it has done for me. Please note that this is just a basic overview of my understanding. I encourage you to do some research and ask your therapists questions, because SI has a plethora of knowledge and understanding waiting for you to uncover.
Firstly, we need to recognize the order in which our children develop. Please refer to the pyramid below. As you will notice, “sensory systems” is the foundation on which our development is based. These systems include our 5 senses (touch, taste, auditory, sight and smell) as well as what is known as our ‘vestibular’(movement) and ‘proprioceptive’(muscle feedback) sensory systems.
There are two components to sensory processing:
- Sensory modulation – which refers to how we filter sensory information from the environment. When doing this, we unconsciously determine what is important information to pay attention to and what to ignore.
- Sensory discrimination – which refers to how we determine the specific qualities of the information, e.g. when feeling something in your hand and determining the specific characteristics of the item, does it have smooth sides, how many sides does it have, is it hard or soft etc.
This article mainly focuses on the sensory modulation aspect of sensory processing.
The way in which we interpret and interact with the world around us is dependent on the way in which we integrate all of the sensory input we receive. On any given day, we are bombarded with sensory input in each one of our sensory systems. A neurotypical person is able to sort through all of this input and regulate each system so that he/she may focus on and use the information that is pertinent to them at a specific time. For special needs children, or children with sensory integration difficulties, it is often extremely difficult to regulate themselves. As input throughout the day builds up, learners become more and more over-stimulated and “out of sync”.
Different children have different sensitivities or crave additional sensory input in varying sensory systems. It is important to try and find out which systems your child is particularly sensitive/avoidant towards and make adaptions for them. For example, if a child is sensitive towards visual input or light, it is often beneficial for them to have a dark “hiding” place where they are able to go and regulate or “calm down”. We often find that in order to regulate themselves, children tend to seek certain input either within the same sensory system or from other sensory systems. For example, if a learner is completely over stimulated by auditory input they may make more noise themselves in order to drown out the external input or they may seek vestibular input in the form of swinging in order to try and regulate.
These are just a few examples of how SI difficulties manifest and how children attempt to regulate themselves. Many children are not equipped to try and regulate themselves, this is when we step in and try to understand each learner’s specific sensory needs in order to assist in organising their behaviour by providing them with specific sensory input in varied intensities and durations. The aim of this is to assist in obtaining a calm regulated state where the child is able to function optimally and learn to self-regulate.
As previously mentioned, this is a very basic introduction to Sensory Integration. I would love to take up the entire newsletter and really get in to the good stuff, but I have been allocated only a specific amount of space in our ‘therapy corner’. I do hope that this has encouraged you to look into Sensory Integration and find out some things for yourselves. Thank you for reading and see you next time!
By Amber Keating, Occupational Therapist