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Use the information provided on this site as an educational resource for determining your options and making your
own informed choices. It is not intended as medical advice or to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any specific illness.
|Sensory integration is a child's ability to feel, understand, and organize sensory information from his body
and his environment. In essence, sensory integration sorts, orders, and eventually puts all individual
sensory inputs together into a whole brain function. Sensations flow into the brain, like streams flowing
into a lake. Countless bits of sensory information enter into our brains every moment...the brain locates,
sorts and orders sensations-somewhat as a traffic policeman directs moving cars. When sensations flow in
a well organized or integrated manner, the brain can use those sensations to form perceptions, behaviors
and learning. When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush hour traffic jam. Sensory
integration is also reflected in a child's development, learning, and feelings about himself. The
connection between sensory integration and social and emotional development should not be
underestimated. How a child integrates through the sensory systems provides a basis for his reality. Not your
reality, not my reality, his reality-and his unique perspective on the world around him.
All day, every day, we receive information from our senses-touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell, body position,
and movement and balance. Our brains must organize this information so that we can successfully
function in all aspects of daily life-at home, at school, at play, at work, and during social interactions.
Sensations come in as perception, but then the brain must organize (i.e. locate, sort and order) all of these
sensations. It is not enough to simply be able to receive a sensation -- we must be able to make sense of it.
Sensory Integration is the term we use to refer to the brain's process of organizing the sensations for use.
The streams of electrical impulses (vibrations), which are sensations, must be integrated to turn sensation
into perception, and then to give them meaning.
From birth to about age 7, the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. The child mainly senses
things and then moves his body in relation to those sensations. We call these the years of sensory-motor
development. As we grow, mental and social responses replace some of this sensory-motor activity, however
the brain's development of mental and social functions is based upon a foundation of sensory-motor
processes. In the last twenty years there has been a real breakdown in the opportunity for healthy
movement. Children no longer spend the bulk of their time in real physical activity - walking to school,
running in back yard sports, riding horses, hauling water, chopping wood and so on. Today most children
spend the bulk of their time, both in school and out, sitting. Sitting listening to teachers. Sitting doing
assignments. Sitting playing video games and watching TV. Even in sports, instead of running around
freely, children spend so much of the time waiting, discussing rules and arguing. As a result, the vast
majority of children do not get the sensory and physical experience they need to develop a healthy
neurological system. Thus, they are not learning up to their potential. Nor are they thriving - bursting
with confidence and enthusiasm.
Academic abilities as well as behavior and emotional growth rest upon healthy sensory integration and a
healthy sensory-motor foundation. The problems you note in your children may not just be a matter of
personality -- but may reflect actual physical problems in processing information -- sensory integration. A
person with dysfunctional sensory-processing will not be able to receive the necessary stimulation for the
brain to develop properly. He may be hearing. However, if he is overly sensitive to sound, or if he can't make
sense of the words; if he can't selectively pay attention to communication and block out the background
noise; if what he sees doesn't coordinate with the words being used to describe it; then he will have great
difficulty learning language. In the process, he may block out the distressing stimuli, and, as a result, miss
the sensory-motor stimulation so necessary for proper development.
Everyone experiences unpleasant or distracting sensory experiences at some point in their lives. Common
sensory distractions that can make life intolerable for a while include fingernails scratching against a
chalkboard, itchy clothing, bright lights, or very cold foods. On the other hand, we all crave certain sensory
input at different levels. Some enjoy music (loud or soft), dancing, spicy foods, rocking chairs, a warm bath
or massage. Every person has their own individualized list of particularly pleasurable or intolerable
sensations. No two people's lists will be identical. So, don't we all have sensory processing disorder? NO.
We all have sensory preferences. It only becomes a disorder when it significantly impacts one or more
areas of functioning.
What are some signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction?
How is Sensory Integration Dysfunction diagnosed?
Sensory Dysfunction is usually diagnosed by an occupational therapist, a speech and language pathologist
or by a physical therapist. The primary standardized assessment tool for children ages 4 through 8 who may
have learning, behavioral or developmental delays is the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test, which can be
administered by a therapist who is SIPT certified. Therapists also use clinical observation and parent-
teacher interviews to assess sensory integration dysfunction. For children ages 0-3, California has an
Early Start Program that allows eligible children to be evaluated at no cost. IDEA 2004 ensures that school
age children in a public school who qualify be tested and receive an IEP (Individualized Education
Program). Know your rights-many schools will not offer or will even decline to provide this service. You
are your child's advocate. See www.wrightslaw.com for more advocacy help.
How is Sensory Integration Dysfunction treated?
The "How Does Your Engine Run?" Program (Williams & Shellenberger, 1994) is a step-by-step method that
teaches children simple changes to their daily routine (such as a brisk walk, jumping on a trampoline prior
to doing their homework, listening to calming music) that will help them self-regulate or keep their engine
running "just right." Through the use of charts, worksheets, and activities, the child is guided in improving
awareness and using self-regulation strategies.
"If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it
runs just right."
When teachers, therapists, or parents use these simple words to begin the Alert Program, they enter an
exciting adventure with children. The journey unfolds easily with the Alert Program's clearly defined steps
for teaching self-regulation awareness.
The book, How Does Your Engine Run? A Leader's Guide to the Alert Program for Self-Regulation (Williams
& Shellenberger, 1996), describes an innovative program that supports children, teachers, parents, and
therapists to choose appropriate strategies to change or maintain states of alertness. Students learn what
they can do before a spelling test or homework time to attain an optimal state of alertness for their tasks.
Teachers learn what they can do after lunch, when their adult nervous systems are in a low alert state and
their students are in a high alert state. Parents learn what they can do to help their toddler's nervous
system change from a high alert state to a more appropriate low state at bedtime.
One of the frequent questions asked is whether a child should be given “slack” because a particular
behavior is driven by some sensory impulse. The short answer is no. Another question is how to
differentiate a SID behavior from “normal misbehavior?”
All behaviors should be addressed in the same consistent manner- regardless of the reason. Consistency
and routine are very important to SID kids. One does account, however, for the sensory aspect by taking
steps to redirect the child to another activity and away from a situation when it is obvious that he is starting
to seek sensory input of one type or another or that he is about to go on sensory overload in the current
setting. Optimally, this is done while teaching the child a self-regulation technique with the expectation
and knowledge that he has started to assimilate at least some of it, and is capable of applying it
independently, or with a reminder.
The reason for not differentiating is a simple one. Any behavior from a SID child, whether it is SID-driven or
not, needs to be corrected or redirected, so it does not matter, for disciplinary purposes, where it stems
from. Also, the child herself has no way of understanding, mostly due to lack of maturity, that some of her
behaviors are driven by SID, while others are not. To her, it is all the same and she will therefore apply her
logic and understanding of situations in the same way.
So, if you are in a noisy situation and you can see your child’s behavior starting to change or even
deteriorate, transition and then remove her from it. You may need a really short transition to head off an
impending melt-down, depending on where your child is at with self-regulation. Eventually, you should be
able to ask him how he is doing and get an accurate reading of his sensory state. When he has mastered
self-regulation, none of this will be an issue any more and he will remove himself from the situation on his
Until that mature, self-regulatory state is achieved, the SID child needs to be taught how to self-regulate,
understand and accept that with inappropriate behaviors, come consequences. One excellent way to
explain consequences for a behavior, is drawing a cartoon on a white board together with your child, and
going through various scenarios. Allow your child to help you “mold” the story by asking what the
character should do next, whether that character is making a good choice? Take this to both the positive
and negative conclusions and discuss the outcomes. At the end of this exercise, have a talk with your child
about her own behavior and tie it to the cartoon you just worked on as a way of reinforcing the lesson that
was just learned.
There is a series of books for young children ages 2-5, Little Critter by Mercer Mayer, that is wonderful in
getting through many of “social” messages in a fun and simple way that children easily identify with and
want to read over and over. You may find that those are a great help in getting the message through for
many of the common issues you run into at home on a daily basis. Find many other books for children on
our Books, CDs, DVDs page.
Another helpful website for behavioral disorders is KidSource-lots of good advice and tools to help.
Toys, Products, and Ideas
for Sensory Education