Sensory Integration: Back to Basics

Whist all of our wonderful therapists here at OTFC are skilled and experienced in many different areas, we all hold Sensory Integration as the main theory that guides our practice.

So what is ‘Sensory Integration theory’ and what has that got to do with your therapist spending time pushing your child around on a swing?!

In the 1960’s a wonderful OT by the name of A. Jean Ayres began formulating a theory that in order to move and learn, our bodies rely on the ability of our nervous systems to process sensory information correctly.  Put formally, Sensory Integration is ‘the neurological process that organises sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment’.

We are constantly receiving sensory information from within our bodies and our surrounding environment. We receive sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and feedback from our body about movement, balance and our position in space. These senses all work together, to help us get a sense of who we are, where we are and what is happening around us – hence the term INTEGRATION. Our nervous system must be able to register and receive the information, classify it correctly (e.g. Tactile sensation coming from fingertips touching a pan), store it in our memory (in order to be able to recognise it if it comes again), adapt the information to the current situation (e.g. The pan feels hot now) and respond appropriately (e.g. Remove the hand).

We need to be able to PROCESS sensory information efficiently in order to move, learn and interact with others appropriately. For some people, sensory integration occurs without even having to think about it. The nervous system also has a very important job in MODULATING sensory input coming into the nervous system. In this way the nervous system acts as a “FILTER” – switching off sensations that we don’t need and helping us to become aware of sensations that we need. This influences our ‘arousal’ level and helps us to speed up our “Engine” when we need to run, react quickly and play sport and also helps us to slow our “Engine” when we need to sit and listen in class or get off to sleep at night. Most children can sit in the classroom and listen to their teacher giving instructions without paying attention to the hum of the air conditioner, or the hanging artwork swaying in the breeze, or the feel of the hard chair under their bottom…etc. Furthermore, some of those children could even continue colouring in whilst listening to the teachers instructions. However, for children with sensory integration dysfunction (also called Sensory Processing Disorder), their nervous systems may not be able to process sensory information efficiently. They may misinterpret sensory information, causing them to over-react (like the child who can’t stand to be touched or bumped by others) or under-react (like the daydreamer child who takes a lifetime to get ready for school in the morning). Children may therefore avoid distressing or confusing sensations, or seek out more sensations in order to learn more about it. Children who over-react to certain stimuli may constantly be ‘on edge’ all day, whilst other children may be working twice as hard to consciously process sensory information that would normally happen automatically, or subconsciously for others; what an exhausting experience this must be for them!

So getting back to how this relates to the use of swings in Sensory Integration therapy… Aside from touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, we have two very important senses: vestibular and proprioceptive. Vestibular sense arises from the vestibular apparatus inside the inner ear and put simply, is the sense of movement and balance. Proprioception is our sense of body awareness – our brain receives feedback from our joints, muscles and tendons to help us understand where our body parts are in relation to each other. Vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses are the very first senses to develop in utero, they are our biggest sensory systems, and they provide the foundations for a child’s development. Therefore, it is no wonder that OT sessions often target the vestibular system (through things like swinging), proprioceptive system (through things like rough and tumble, jumping and crashing) and tactile system (Shaving cream!!).

During the fun activities in an OT session, children are constantly receiving all types of sensory input and their nervous system is being challenged to receive, classify, store, adapt and respond to this information; it is trying to process and integrate the sensory information so that the child can move efficiently, learn and be happy!

All of this information is just the tip of the iceberg!! To learn more about Sensory Integration and how it will help your child’s development, come along to one of our parent information evenings. For further details, you can contact us at Occupational Therapy For Children on (08)8410 4522.