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What Is Sensory Integration?

Sensory Integration is the way we learn to receive and react to sensory information, such as the feeling of touch, smells, noises, tastes and sights. We receive information from materials and objects that activate our senses. The information then travels to our brain where we react based on sensory information and memories of past experiences.

In a nutshell, sensory integration is the process of getting to know how to react to sensory information. For example, we might learn that fire is too hot to touch, the sun is too bright to look at directly and we don’t like the taste of mustard. Most of our responses to sensory information are learned at a young age when we explore our environments during play.

But not everyone integrates sensory information so easily. Some children experience difficulty with sensory integration and it stays with them as they grow older. This is more often the case in children with autism.

Our understanding of sensory integration can be traced back around 50 years when an American psychologist, by the name of Jean Ayres, became fascinated with sensory experiences and its effect on school and everyday life.

Why Is Sensory Integration Important?

The sensory experiences we have as children then stay with us during the rest of our life. We don’t put our hands in the fire and we order ketchup on our hotdog instead of mustard (if you don’t like mustard that is). What we have learned in those early years has taught us how different sights, smells, materials, tastes and noises make us feel. Thus, we live in a way to avoid things we are not fond of or could cause us harm.

If we don’t experience sensory integration as a child or have our sensory integration impacted by other factors, such as a disability, we can have difficulties in later life. In 2015, researchers argued that there are four types of sensory integration problems that can occur. These were:

1.     Sensory Modulation Issues

Sensory modulation issues refer to instances when people will either over or under respond to sensory information. They may be more aware of the tag in their jeans or not realise when someone taps them on the shoulder. We all may experience this to some degree but some people with sensory integration problems experience more intensely. As a result, they may have difficulty wearing clothes, showering or having social contact.

2.     Sensory Discrimination

Sensory discrimination occurs when we cannot differentiate between two things as easily. It is best described with an example. Let’s say you were trying to button up a shirt but couldn’t feel the difference between the shirt material and the button. Sometimes these issues look like clumsiness but can be more serious.

3.     Vestibular-Bilateral Issues

Sensory integration issues may also cause problems with balance and coordination. Ultimately, these types of sensory integration problems can result in many other issues throughout life. But practitioners and sensory equipment are available to help.

4.     Praxis Issues

It is true that not all praxis problems occur because of problems with sensory integration, but some do. Praxis is the way our brains prepare for carrying out movements. For example, our brains must work out how we will crawl and run as children. As adults, the same may occur when we start to use chopsticks for the first time or take up knitting.

Issues, disturbances and hindrances in sensory integration can therefore affect the quality of life.

Why Is Sensory Integration Important for Occupational Therapy?

To counter the common problems associated with ineffective sensory integration, occupational therapists can use a number of techniques to help these people have positive and beneficial sensory experiences.

By helping and supporting people with sensory problems, occupational therapists can support individuals to become more comfortable with the way they experience everyday objects, and make these things have fewer negative impacts on their everyday life.

In some cases, sensory integration is also able to help make individuals safer at home and in public environments. Therapists can assist them to recognise dangers and live safely.

Occupational therapy for these purposes may include sensory integration equipment which is a range of objects specifically designed to activate the senses in a therapeutic environment. Sometimes the equipment even encompasses large spaces known as sensory rooms.

Who Benefits from Sensory Integration Equipment?

Sensory Integration equipment has the potential to benefit anyone that has experienced sensory integration in an unorthodox way. It can be beneficial within children who are likely to have sensory integration problems, but it may be beneficial to adults as well.

Not to forget the many occupational therapists, teachers and parents will benefit from sensory integration equipment by making their jobs easier – and helping them achieve the results they want.

How Does Sensory Integration Equipment Help Overcome Challenges Associated with Autism, Dyspraxia and Behavioural Difficulties?

Autism and Dyspraxia are two conditions that may benefit from sensory integration therapy.

Children and adults with autism are more likely to have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD affects the way a person experiences everyday objects because they don’t process sensory information in the same way as most of us. Some senses that most people find comforting may even cause pain to people with SPD. That said it is important to note that most people with SPD do not have autism.

Sensory integration equipment is able to mitigate the negative effects of SPD by immersing sufferers into safe spaces where they can explore their senses.

The therapeutic and calming atmosphere created in sensory equipment rooms is also known to benefit people with Dyspraxia. Some children can find it frustrating and stressful to fail when moving, but sensory rooms create a safe place for them to try and explore different motor skills.

The calming environment of a sensory room has been identified as an effective space when dealing with behavioural problems too. The rooms can instil a sense of calm in children who may have been agitated by an event with another child.

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