What is Sensory Integration?

All of us learn about and comprehend the world through our senses. We see things, we hear things, we touch things, we experience gravity, and we use our bodies to move around in it. All of the sensory input from the environment and from inside our bodies works together seamlessly so we know what’s going on and what to do.

Sensory integration is something most of us do automatically. Usually, sensory input registers well, gets processed in the central nervous system and then hooks up seamlessly with all of the other senses. This lets us think and behave appropriately in response to what’s going on.

Kids with sensory integration (SI) dysfunction experience the world differently. They don’t take in and use sensory information the same way. Their central nervous system responds to sensory input differently, so they’re not always getting an accurate, reliable picture of their bodies and the environment.

Think of sensory integration like an orchestra. You need the woodwinds section, the strings section, the percussion, the piano to all be in tune, playing in key at the right volume, all perfectly coordinated with each other. With SI dysfunction, the conductor isn’t controlling the music well. Different sections in the orchestra are out of tune and out of sync so it doesn’t sound right.

For a child with severe sensory issues, walking into the supermarket can feel like walking into a rock and roll concert. Such a child may be able to see and hear the fluorescent lighting flicker, a squeaky shopping cart may sound like thunder, the meat department may smell like a garbage dump, and navigating the aisles and other shoppers may feel like being on a bumper car ride. What seems normal to us can easily overwhelm a child with sensory problems.

Common Signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction

• Out of proportion reactions: over or undersensitivity to touch, sounds, sights,
movement, tastes, or smells
• Problems with vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive senses (body awareness)
• Bothered by particular clothing fabrics, labels, waistbands, etc.
• Avoids or excessively craves intense movement — slides, swings, bouncing, jumping
• Resists grooming activities such as brushing teeth and washing hair
• Avoids foods most children enjoy
• Gets dizzy easily-or never at all
• Seems clumsy or careless
• Often “tunes out” or “acts up”
• Poor attention and focus
• Uncomfortable in group settings
• Very high or very low pain threshold
• Squints, blinks, or rubs eyes frequently (may have an undiagnosed vision problem)

Compiled by Sara Torten MS, OTR/L