Understanding Sensory Integration and Processing: Why It Matters To Children
Sensory integration: Any parent of multiple children knows that children (and adults for that matter) can interpret the same situation very differently. Who hasn’t heard, “You love ‘Carrie’ more than me” or “You never make John do chores but I’m always doing stuff.”
If I had a dollar for every time my oldest child expressed feelings of inferiority to her younger brother or told me that I love him more or spend time with him more.
In all reality, if there had been a hidden camera recording our every move all of these years it would clearly show more time and energy spent on her compared to on her little brother. What accounts for these differences in perception?
Sometimes it’s birth order or life experiences. Most of the time it is simple differences in temperament. The same can be said for sensory integration.
How Children Exhibit Sensory Integration and Recieve Stimulation
How children receive sensory stimulation may vary wildly from one child to the next. One child may need to be rocked constantly or driven around in a car in order to finally produce sleep while another child may melt into the parent’s arms or the coziness of the bassinet.
One child may seek motion, constantly running and jumping and spinning while another child prefers dim lighting and a quiet corner to himself.
One child may need deep pressure stimulation that looks like tickling, wrestling or rough housing while another child may avoid touch or squirm out of a hug or back-scratch moment.
Children are constantly receiving and processing new information and sensations. For most, they fall within some typical range of how temperature, touch, sights and sounds affect their bodies.
For some, however, falling outside of that expected range can produce distress, excitement, frustration and challenges in the learning environment.
What Are the Senses?
Most people think of the senses as those we all learned as children: touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing.
However, over time we’ve learned that these do not actually encapsulate all the ways in which the brain receives information and stimulation. In fact, we have several other critical senses.
According to the work of Jean Ayres, PhD, and Occupation Therapist, the fundamental sensory systems include:
- Tactile sense: information gained through the surface of the skin which helps us distinguish between threatening and non-threatening touch sensations and helps us to understand how much pressure we need to exert to an item (i.e. in writing, coloring, holding a railing, etc.)
- Vestibular sense: information received and processed in the inner ear which helps us understand gravity and our body in our space. It also helps us learn about balance and movement.
- Proprioceptive sense: information gained and processed through our muscles and joints about where our specific body parts are and how to use them to get tasks done and not injure ourselves or others.
What is Sensory Processing?
- Sensory processing is the “integration, modulation, discrimination, coordination, and organization of incoming sensory information received from the body and the environment in order to produce an adaptive and purposeful response; or, more simply, the organization of sensory, input for use in daily life.”
To understand how important sensory processing is we only need to observe an elementary room classroom for short time. We see the need for children to take visual cues from a teacher or peer, the need to respond to the bell and know it’s time to transition.
The process of children understanding personal boundaries as they form and sit in a circle on the floor; the hand-eye coordination needed to cut, write, sharpen a pencil; the ability to override distractions in the hall and focus on the teacher who is giving a lesson at the front of the class.
The need for adaptive sensory integration and processing is pervasive in schools. We often take it for granted that all children are highly functioning in these areas.
Part 2. What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
However, we are quickly learning that many children struggle in one or multiple areas of sensory processing.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is defined as the “inability to integrate, modulate, discriminate, coordinate, and/or organize sensations adaptively, leading to difficulties in learning, development, and behavior.” Sadly, the number of children with SPD is on the rise.
Sensory Integration and the Case of Charlie
Imagine for a moment the case of Charlie. Charlie is a 6-year-old first grader. He has an underlying difficulty with poor fine motor skills and a craving for a touch, meaning that he craves a certain kind of touch and tactile sensation in order to feel at ease.
Because of his underdeveloped fine motor skills, Charlie is a messy eater, has poor handwriting, and limited self-help skills.
He also avoids using classroom tools such as pencils, sharpeners, crayons, scissors and projects dealing with art and science.
But how does he avoid these activities? Well, because of his yearning for touch he bounces around the room, bumping into things, peers, and adults.
He puts his hands on other people’s bodies, work, is fast and clumsy and often violates other people’s space. He knocks things down frequently as he is moving from space to space seeking and avoiding at the same time.
You can begin to imagine how Charlie is perceived and treated in his first-grade classroom. He is seen as a “behavior problem” and over time he becomes more isolated from the very activities he needs in order to begin to learn how to integrate sensations in an adaptive manner.
For example, he gets put at his own table in order to decrease distraction to other children and to himself but then he does not learn to navigate the close quarters of peers, sharing and taking turns with the materials he needs to be working with.
He gets restricted from recess as a consequence of some previous acting-out behavior or accident in the classroom and does not get to experience the touch of peers in a game of tag or the collaboration and stimulation found in climbing, running and in general, organizing play.
Why Are We Seeing More Children Like Charlie?
Just as with the first example given about some children perceiving things differently than others, there are many reasons a child develops a Sensory Processing Disorder. Some children are born with genetic sensitivities. Some children encounter a trauma which may increase the incidence of SPD.
However, the recent alarming increases in SPD diagnosis have researchers and scientists pointing to the explosion of technology use as a primary culprit.
A recent Kaiser Foundation study found that 50% of North American homes have the T.V. on all day. And this does not even begin to take into account what we are seeing every day in our own life experiences – that children as young as 6 months or a year are holding, engaging with and playing with personal electronic devices for increasing amounts of time.
Where only 20 years ago children played outside for hours on end, today’s young child is lucky to spend an hour a day outside. And absorption in video games, screens, and technological applications have zapped children’s need for creativity and imagination.
These fast-paced, chaotic forms of stimulation overload have also left children struggling to self-regulate and attend to tasks – skills which are critical in the learning environment.
How Can We Help Children Increase Their Ability To Integrate Senses And Meet Critical Developmental Milestones
Chris A. Rowan, Pediatric Occupational Therapist, speaker, and author states, “Young children require 2 to 3 hours per day of active, rough and tumble play to achieve adequate sensory stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems.”
He points out that there are 4 critical factors necessary to achieve healthy child development:
- Human Connection
- Exposure to nature
What Can We Do to Improve Sensory Integration?
Surely we, as parents, teachers, administrators, occupational therapists and social workers can do more to demand these four basic tenants be included in our school environments where our children pass so much time.
And most definitely we should strive to prioritize these elements and use technology only strategically and deliberately when raising the youngest of our young.
Children gain healthy sensory integration through play (specifically outside play), controlled exposure to risk, varied types of tactile stimulation, love and attention.
The good news is that none of these critical needs cost a lot of money and all of them are attainable!
With some time, planning and effort, we can make great strides to decreasing SPD for our children and all children. Let’s get moving!
- The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun. 2003. Carol Stock Kranowitz., M.A. pg. 3-4
- Virtual Child: The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children. 2010)