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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-
"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-
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
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 own.
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