Lets understand Sensory Integration!

It is a term coined by the Occupational therapist Jean Ayres

Before we go into the theory of Sensory integration, lets read a story on how sensory integration helps in forming beautiful and wonderful memories of childhood!!!

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Ruhie is a little girl who has just come back from school and she jumps in the puddles. Sometimes the water in the puddles was lots and sometimes it was really mucky. Ruhie would sit into the puddle and dig her hands into the muck. With these hands, she pushed her hair behind as they came over her face. Enjoying the gooey muck, she knew how to zoom the lenses of her eyes and focus only on the swing in the midst of so many children running and jumping around, sometimes occluding her view of the swing. Her vision was sharp like that of the eagle’s who will grab her swing immediately as someone vacated it. Then she would sit on the swing and enjoy the movement till it was full for her. And then amongst the sounds of birds chirping and the children playing, she hears her mom calling. So Ruhie runs back home. As soon as she entered the house the smell of the yummy food pulled her towards the kitchen when she was asked to wash her hands and face. And then once all clean, she got to relish the delicious meal. She ends her day by finishing her homework.

You must be wondering what Sensory integration has to do with all of the above- All that Ruhie did above was sensory integration. Read this along to know as I explain.

1. Proprioception and jumping in the puddles –
Ruhie could jump because she has an intact proprioceptive sense that helped her to decide how hard or gently to jump.
Proprioceptors are present in all the joints of our body. They help us to understand the position of body in space and also helps to grade the movement.

2. Tactile sense and Jumping in the mucky water-
Gave Ruhie the tactile input.
Tactile sense is the sense of touch which tells us what are we touching or where are we getting touched.
It also tells us the pressure of the input.
Touch helps us to understand the world.

3. Vestibular sense and swinging –
Helped Ruhie develop vestibular sense.
This is the sense which is present in our inner ears. It tells us about movement of body in space and also the kind of movement. So it tells us whether we are on a swing or a car or a roller coaster ride and guess what ….it also tells the speed.

4. Vision-
While Ruhie played in the muck or the mud, her eyes were glued on the swing.
This is the visual system which tells us how to focus on what we want and ignore other distractions.

5. Auditory-
While Ruhie played amongst the sounds of children shouting and screaming, crow cawing away, she was very clearly aware of her mom calling her!!
This means that we have the ability to separate ambient sounds from focal sounds.

6. Olfactory-is the sense of smell which helped Ruhie know what was cooked for dinner.

7. Gustatory- is the sense of taste helped her to relish the food.

8. Interoception- It is the sense responsible for detecting internal regulation responses, such as breathing, hunger-thirst, bowel bladder and heart rate cycle.

What else was happening
1. Attention- as you read all of the things above, it must be clear about how attention is a by-product or fruit of the 8 systems working effectively.
2. Motor planning- this was needed for Ruhie to grab her swing whenever someone vacated it- the speed and the coordination of her body to run quickly. Motor planning is needed to wash hands, feet and face after she finished playing. And also to complete her home work. So a lot of motor planning is needed in our day to day tasks.
3. State of arousal- Even though Ruhie was very tired after school, playing in the playground was something that she could not never miss out. She could SELF REGULATE and keep herself active in the playground. But once she was home, she was dull and lazy- she had control over the knobs of arousal which helped her to be dull or active.

All the 8 senses were integrated, Ruhie will grow up challenging her limits and exploring her surroundings. She will want to re-live it.

Now what happens when the senses are not integrated- lets consider Ruhie again. One thing to remember is that whenever there is a sensory processing disorder- the sense will work less(hypo), more (hyper) instead of just right (optimal).

1. Jumping in the puddle may not happen because of poor motor planning or there may be a big need to just jump irrespective of anything else.
2. Jumping in the puddle may be avoided because of the texture of the mud or water.
3. Touching mucky or gooey things may be just impossible because of tactile defensiveness. Or the child seeks just that irrespective of anything else. Because of the tactile sense of being more or less, tastes are either seeked or avoided making them into picky eaters.
4. Swinging may be avoided completely or it may be the only thing that is seeked.
5. Because the child gets absorbed into the input, attention suffers.
6. Visual attention or looking around and focussing on what is needed may be difficult because of poor filtering.
7. Listening to mom’s call or any sound directed towards the child maybe ignored because the child is again absorbed into one of the senses intensely seeking it or completely avoiding it.
8. Lot of smell seeking is there or child is completely oblivious about it.
9. And then I am sure by now, you know what happens to play and forming connections. Everything is broken and shattered because there is no integration of senses.
10. There is poor self regulation or regulation of arousal states making it really difficult to fall asleep – child may fall into patterns of no sleeping, difficulty falling asleep, irregular timings of sleep and so on.
11. And then you can imagine what it will be like to live with an interoceptive system which does not tell you when you are hungry and how hungry are you. How much to eat and when to stop eating? This system also signals when to go to pee and poop.

So, coming back to sensory integration- it is a process by which all the senses work together to make sense of the world – wanting to live and enjoy the world and seek and make connections.

And when the senses are not integrated, or when an individual has a sensory processing disorder, life is difficult !!!!

The good news is that Sensory integration can be facilitated by occupational therapists by providing “just right” opportunities and kids can have a lovely childhood with memories to cherish for lifetime!!!

Reena Singh

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