What’s Sensory Integration Got to Do With It?

What’s sensory integration got to do with it? (Learning that is). My answer is simple…everything!

As human beings we have five senses; touch, taste, sound, sight and smell. Our body collects information from the world around us using these senses.

However, that’s only the beginning. The next step involves our brain processing and making sense of all of the incoming sensory input. This is a process called sensory integration. With it, learning is smooth sailing and without it…potentially problematic.

 

Signs of good sensory integration:

  • We can easily transition from one activity to the next

  • Our learning progresses at the anticipated speed

  • We’re prepared to ‘have a go’ with new sensory experiences

  • Our internal motor is running ‘just right’ (we’re neither lethargic or hyperactive)

  • We’re able to tolerate loud noises and environments, even if our personal preference is for quiet

 

Signs of poor sensory integration:

  • We’re likely to be either a ‘sensory seeker’ (touching everything and everyone) or a ‘sensory avoider’ (retreating due to overstimulation). Switching between the two in different scenarios is commonly seen

  • Transitions are challenging and may escalate our mood or behaviour

  • Learning can be slow, laborious or simply out of sync with our demonstrated intelligence

  • Our internal motor is running too fast (leaving us hyperactive) or too slow (frequent lethargy)

  • We can’t cope well with loud noises or environments

  • There’s clumsiness or a lack of accuracy in our movements (gross or fine motor)

  • We’re often inflexible because we feel safer in the world when we’re in charge

 

Seven Senses?

I mentioned earlier in the post that we have five senses. The truth is, I lied. We actually have seven. And the two additional sources of feedback are crucial for aiding the process of sensory integration. I’m referring to the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. So, what are they?

 

The Vestibular System

The vestibular system is part of our inner ear and it measures our position, movement and speed. It’s also appropriately known as the balance system. Any time there’s movement, we’re offering vestibular input to the brain and body. When we are rocked as a baby, when we go on the swings at the playground, when we run, jump or spin, we’re stimulating our balance system.

 

The Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system is made up of the muscles, joints and ligaments of our body. These measure strength, tension and pressure. Think about the way that we stay in our bed when sleeping-proprioception. Imagine the feeling of walking barefoot on the grass-proprioception. Consider the sensations your body gets when you’re lifting weights at the gym or in the downward dog yoga pose-proprioception. Pushing, pulling, lifting, wrestling, biting, squeezing, compression-it’s all proprioceptive sources of input.

Vestibular and proprioceptive input are often the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to sensory integration. These sources of feedback have a calming and organising effect for children with sensory processing challenges but are also essential components of any child’s development.

 

So how can we help?

Let’s provide children with an abundance of opportunities both at home and in the classroom, to move, to get messy, to be in nature, to retreat and to recharge.

It doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t have to be hard. If we take our cues from our children, they’ll show us the way.

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