What is sensory integration (or sensory processing)?

The way in which an individual connects, engages and reacts with their environment can be thought of as sensory processing. These sensory experiences encompass the five senses (sight, smell, taste, sound, touch) as well as the sense of gravitational pull, awareness of one’s body and physical movement. How individuals experience the world is different for everyone. Evidently, sensory processing is integral to a child’s general development, and has implications for how one learns, behaves and interacts with others and their physical environment. For most people, this process is natural and continuous, while for others, they have difficulties in managing their sensory experiences. Most of the time, our senses are being continually receiving stimuli from our envi-ronment, thus we need to be able to distill this information and prioritise what needs our immedi-ate attention, and what we need to drain out. Perhaps one of the most common medical condi-tions that may involve problems with sensory processing is autism.
Sensory integration is the process by which the human brains filters and coordinates sensory in-formation. This involves being able to take in sensory input; interpret the information; manage the stimuli to formulate a response; and actioning or responding to the input.

What is sensory processing disorder?

There is research that indicates that approximately 1 in 20 children have difficulties with sensory processing. Often, a child on the Autism spectrum can be hyper sensitive or under sensitive to sensory stimuli, which are the core characteristics of sensory processing disorder. While sensory pro-cessing issues manifest in different ways from individual to individual, people who are hypersensitive present as over-reactive and often try to avert sensory stimuli, while hyposensitive people usually pursue sensory input. These problems commonly mean that individuals with sensory pro-cessing disorder have vigorous behavioural and emotional reactions to their environment, which is often termed as having “melt downs”. For instance, children may have heightened reactions to loud noises, or seek a specific feel or sensation to calm themselves.

What causes sensory processing disorder?

The specific cause of sensory processing disorder is not well understood nor established. Most re-search indicates a strong genetic constituent, and some studies have displayed children with sensory difficulties often have activity abnormalities in their brain when they take in light and sound input. As discussed already, problems with sensory processing are commonly exhibited by individuals on the Autism spectrum.

What issues can children with sensory integration problems have?

As being able to effectively and appropriately manage one’s reactions to their environment is essential to being able to engage with others and function in their everyday lives, complications in these areas can have massive implications for a child’s overall development and daily functioning. Often, young people with sensory processing issues show signs of being uncoordinated (e.g. often walks into things, dropping objects), poor body awareness (e.g. miscalculate the position of their limbs in the given space), or shows difficulties participating in conversation or play with their peers. These problems can lead to ongoing problems with emotional regulation, disruptive or challenging behaviours and poor social skills. Unsurprisingly, considerable problems in these basic are-as of a child’s development can result in social isolation, confidence and self-esteem problems, academic difficulties and issues with aggression, anxiety or depression.

What treatment can help a child with sensory integration problems?

The usual treatment for sensory processing problems is sensory integration therapy, which is often administered by an Occupational Therapist (OT). OT interventions are intended to engage the child in a playful and enjoyable manner so that they are taught to reciprocate and react to sensory in-formation in a more relevant way. OTs often develop an understanding of the child’s “sensory di-et” to expose them to a variety of sensory stimuli in a structured process. These often include strategies such as movement therapy, activities involving balance and other physical modalities. Of course, the interventions an OT employs will depend on the child’s personal needs and the exact areas of sensory difficulties; i.e. a child with sensitivities to noise will be managed differently to a child with difficulties with visual experiences.