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Sensory Integration

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

As a therapist I receive questions from parents/caregivers who come to our practice scared because they heard the phrase “your child has a sensory problem” or “your child is not behaving normally” or “your child doesn’t stay quiet in one place and is moving all the time” or “why your child is covering their ears when we speak? Something is definitely wrong with him!

I always recommend them to discuss all those questions and behaviors with their pediatrician, but I also explain the importance of understanding how our sensory system works and why sometimes our children or even ourselves act. All human beings act differently when faced with situation related to our sensory system, what happens is that many of us learn how to manage them and sometimes to control them as necessary in order to be able to function in our daily basis.

For example, many of us as an adults enjoy biting or chewing the pen’s cap or touching our hair or maybe we get stressed or don’t like when there are many people talking at the same time; all these situations are related in how our sensory system behaves, what happens is that we have the ability to adjust or make the necessary changes so that they do not affect our day to day. Sometimes the sensory system is completely out of control and is not able to accept and respond to a stimulus properly affecting the behavior on a daily basis.

It is important that parents/caregivers understand about this in order to recognize why the child behaves in this way and give him the necessary tools in order to develop strategies that will let him behave better.

Always remember it is important to have a team of therapists in the development of your child when is needed, but it is you who can provide that additional help that will make a big difference in his process, it is you who is with him most of the day and it is you who lives with their reactions and frustrations.

Then, What means sensory integration?

Sensory integration is the neurological process where our brain receives, interprets and regulates information from our body and the environment through our senses, generating a motor and behavior response. In other words, it is the ability of our brain to integrate all the sensations it receives through touch, movement, what we hear and what we see to generate a response according to the stimulus. The sensory system is made up of the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste, proprioceptive and vestibular systems. Here we will tell you a little about each of these systems and what happens when they do not work properly.

Visual System

It is the system that give us the ability to understand and see objects and items. This system works together with the vestibular system in order to let us move safely and with balance. Visual system allows to explore the environment that surround us and give us the opportunity to locate objects and things. In the visual system we can talk about: The ability to track and object (focus on an object when it moves) The ability to visually detail something (the ability to observe details, colors, shapes of an object, helping us to read and adjust patterns). The ability to use the hands and eyes in gross and fine motor activities by the oculo-motor control

What are the most evident characteristics when we have alterations in our visual system?

  • Difficulty doing puzzles, mazes, looking up words in word search.

  • Difficulty combining colors, shapes, size or locating objects in a busy background (background that has another images or colors).

  • Requires head movement when writing or reading.

  • Stares at moving objects such as fans, pinwheels or spinning tops.

Olfactory System

It is the system in charge of giving us the ability to perceive odors in the environment through our nose. This system works in conjunction with the taste system. When our olfactory system is altered, we can have different reactions depending on whether it is overactive or underactive.

When the olfactory system is overactive it is difficult to tolerate certain odors generating the necessity to avoid being near people, things or places that contain that odor.

When the olfactory system is underactive, odors can not be easily detected, requiring constant searching for strong odors such flowers, lotions or markers. This is when we see that some of our children want to smell all the time (object that they see, object that they want to smell).

Gustatory/Taste System

It is the system that allow us to recognize the taste of food. This process begins from the moment the food reaches our mouth, activating the taste receptors and carrying this information to the frontal lobe in the brain. This system is composed of receptors that allow different flavors to be determined such as:

  • Salty

  • Sweet

  • Sour

  • Bitter

When this system is overactive people may have difficulty tolerating a toothbrush, difficulty using a straw, difficulty tolerating textures, difficulty eating and swallowing some foods (many of those who are called “picky eaters”).

When this system is underactive people require their meals to have a high content of seasoning, require biting objects such as pens, toys, clothes, they love to make sounds with their mouth, enjoy using the vibrating toothbrush in their mouth. Here apply those children who always have something in their mouth.

Auditory System

It is the system that give us the ability to hear sounds. This system works closely with the vestibular system to regulate movement, balance and coordination. The auditory system has two components:

Defensive: is used to help us to understand some sounds that are threatening for us.
Discriminatory: is used to help us to understand more details of what we hear.

When the auditory system is overactive it makes it difficult to focus in an activity, causing us to be distracted with other sounds or avoiding additional sounds by covering our ears. When we see our children avoiding sounds like the vacuum cleaner, blender, washing machine or a toilet flushing sounds is because this type of sound bothers them.

When the auditory system is underactive the children tend to pretend that they do not hear what you say or ignore when you speak to them, it also generates the needs to search for more sounds in order to be able to concentrate and complete their daily task. They are those kids who always are making sounds, having the TV or radio with a high volume.

Tactile System

It is the system that has the ability to allow us to feel the environment through our skin. This system has many receptors that allow us to feel and recognize texture, temperature, pressure, shapes and pain.

When the system is overactive it is an increase of sensation to the touch, generating discomfort and sometimes pain. In these cases, the child may feel discomfort from wearing clothing labels, or some texture of the clothes, shoes, socks; the child may avoid walking barefoot or walking in different textures (carpet, rugs, floor, grass, sand), he may attempt to walk on tippy toes, may avoid hugs or being touched, and they do not tolerate having their hair cut or combed.

When the system is underactive the child is seeking for that stimulus in constant basis. In these cases, the child does not have the ability to discriminate and feel when they are touched gently, requiring it to be with pressure, the child seeks to touch textures that offers strong sensations, he/she seeks to be touching things most of the time and people tends to perceive that the child is aggressive just because the amount of force that requires to use in order to be able to feel.

Vestibular system

This system is responsible for responding to movement and gravity contributing to the development of balance, equilibrium, postural control, muscle tone, maintaining a stable visual field while we are moving and responsible for bilateral coordination.

When the system is overactive, the child could be afraid to move, to change positions quickly (such as going down and upstairs, getting in and out of the car), attempt to move very slowly and try to hold onto someone or something to feel safe, poor tolerance to swings and difficulty performing activities like bicycling, jumping on trampoline, walking on uneven surfaces or balancing on one leg.

When the system is underactive, the child has the necessity to run, jump and move constantly, difficulty to keep sitting position without be moving around, during sitting activities he requires to move his legs or arms constantly. Children are characterized by being impulsive and loves the inverted position.

Proprioceptive system

This system is in charge of telling us how the parts of our body are related, the effort required to be able to move, it is in charge of telling us where we are standing or where we are moving in order to make the necessary changes to be able to complete the action.

When the system is overactive the children usually show a lack of motivation to play, they get tired easily, they prefer to do activities of short duration and activities that doesn’t require to much energy (sedentary activities), they show poor gross and fine motor skills, appears to be clumsy, lazy or lack of energy and has difficulty performing activities like opening and closing objects, doors and cabinets.

When the system is underactive the children attempt to clench their teeth constantly, they seek to be hugged tightly, they love to throw themselves to the floor, they like to jump on the bed, o jump from high furniture, enjoy to dress with tight clothes and the best way for them to relax is when they have weight objects (blanket or pillow) over them.

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