What is Sensory Integration?
A child walks onto the grass and starts to cry. Another touches sand, looks at her hand and shrieks inconsolably. “Don’t cry. It’s okay. Sand is fun,” the parents say trying to reassure her. She carries on, until the sand is washed off and she is removed from the situation. A little boy cries every time his parents apply sunscreen on his skin. The mom notices he reacts the same way when she tries to lather him with lotion after his bath. He doesn’t seem to mind the bar of soap gliding across his skin, so what is it about the lotion that triggers his reaction?
It’s easy to notice sensory issues in children because their reactions tend to be more uninhibited. Sometimes adults view those reactions as behavioral instead of what they really are: neural processing issues. Adults have sensory difficulties as well but, unlike their pint-size counterparts, they have had years to process and compensate for them. I am always surprised at how many adults don’t realize they are using strategies to help their nervous system cope with unwanted input. People use noise reducing headsets in the subway, some fidget with their keys in a crowded room, or lean against a structure (pressure helps your brain regulate) when overwhelmed, while others bounce up and down on their chairs at the office (helps with focus). All these behaviors describe only a few of the ways your nervous system compensates for what it cannot process/filter efficiently.
Your brain has to sort through a multitude of input from your senses: smell, taste, touch, visual, auditory, vestibular (where your body is in space), and proprioceptive (sensors that register pressure in your joints and organs). Once it receives these messages, it needs to figure out what to do with this information: ignore, validate, react, save for later, etc. . . . . When it cannot make sense of the information, or if neurological pathways send it down the wrong path, you have a sensory integration issue. A child who cannot process smell will meltdown when exposed to strong scents. A person might like strong firm touch but get really annoyed when touched softly by others. Some people avoid any gelatinous texture in their foods, while others won’t eat crunchy foods. You can classify it as preference, but it becomes a deficiency when it affects one’s ability to function.
Who is Affected by Sensory Integration?
There are many reasons why some people have more sensory processing issues than others. You come across sensory integration issues throughout the population at large, not just with autism spectrum, ADHD, highly-sensitive persons or brain trauma. As a matter of fact, whenever your nervous system is taxed, you can have poor sensory integration. Adults will sometimes isolate themselves as a way to deal with their inability to process this influx of stimuli. Children who cope through avoidance are often low tone, low energy, and slow to participate in the world around them. They can, therefore, experience delays in their milestones, appear to be shy, or uninterested. Others will seek out more intense input to satisfy their decreased ability to register information from their senses. These are the kids or adults that bump into things or people all the time, are always touching things or others around them, tend to participate in intense thrill-seeking sports, listen to loud music, prefer heavy labor, tight hugs and in general seem to lack safety awareness. To add to the complexity, some people are under-responsive in some of their senses and over-responsive in others.
The Goldilocks of Sensory Integration
Ultimately, it boils down to your brain seeking input. If it gets it and makes sense of it, great—no problem there. If the messages it receives are gibberish, participation in life is affected. This is reminiscent of Goldilocks, the amount of usable sensory input your brain gets can’t be too little, and can’t be too much; it has to be just right. One person’s “just right” is another person’s “too much” and another person’s “not enough”.
When it comes to sensory integration, a lot of the focus is on children, but I think it is equally fascinating and useful to look at it throughout a person’s lifespan. This will be explored more in depth in future posts, so stay tuned!
The Take Away:
Sensory integration disorder is when the nervous system cannot process the messages from our senses.
There are seven senses: visual, audio, olfactory (smell)—touch, taste, proprioceptive (sensors that register pressure/force in your body and send that information to your brain), and vestibular (tells your brain where your body is in space).
Adults and children are equally affected. Adults, however, often have better coping strategies.
Sensory integration deficits can manifest themselves in a variety of behaviors: avoidance, tantrums, thrill/input seeking, and much more.
When it comes to sensory processing, the input you need has to be “just right” for your unique brain.