Sensory integration, simply put, is the ability to take in information through senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), to put it together with prior information, memories, and knowledge stored in the brain, and to make a meaningful response. Challenges with processing this sensory information is sensory integration dysfunction. Sensory information is sensed normally, but perceived abnormally. This is not the same as blindness or deafness because sensory information is sensed but tends to be analyzed by the brain in an unusual way that may cause pain or confusion.
CWO’s Director of Vocational Services, Elaine LaMontagne wrote a CARF newsletter article pertaining to sensory related issues. “A sensory approach proves effective in working with persons with autism and challenging behaviors” can be found at CARF Connection.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of sensory integration dysfunction may include:
- becomes fearful, anxious or aggressive with light or unexpected touch
- appears fearful of, or avoids standing in close proximity to other people or peers
- becomes frightened when touched from behind or by someone/something they cannot see
- runs away, cries, and/or covers ears with loud or unexpected sounds
- sensitive to bright lights; will squint, cover eyes, cry and/or get headaches from the light
- easily distracted by other visual stimuli in the room; i.e., movement, decorations, toys, windows, doorways etc.
- reacts negatively to, or dislikes smells which do not usually bother, or get noticed, by other people
- bothered/irritated by smell of perfume or cologne
- refuses to eat certain foods because of their smell
- prefers sedentary tasks, moves slowly and cautiously, avoids taking risks
- may appear terrified of falling even when there is no real risk of it
- fearful of feet leaving the ground
- startles if someone else moves them; i.e., pushing his/her chair closer to the table
- loses balance easily and may appear clumsy
- frequently bump into objects and people
- accidentally trips and falls often
- appear to be “limp” and lethargic all the time
- having poor posture during motor tasks
- is not bothered by injuries, like cuts and bruises
- may not be aware that hands or face are dirty or feel his/her nose running
- may be self-abusive; pinching, biting, or banging his own head
- mouths objects excessively
- seeks out surfaces and textures that provide strong tactile feedback
- has a preference and craving for excessively spicy, sweet, sour, or salty foods
- often does not respond to verbal cues or to name being called
- appears to “make noise for noise’s sake”
- loves excessively loud music or TV
- appears oblivious to certain sounds
- may drink or eat things that are poisonous because they do not notice the noxious smell
- fails to notice or ignores unpleasant odors
- makes excessive use of smelling when introduced to objects, people, or places
- uses smell to interact with objects
- in constant motion, can’t seem to sit still
- craves fast, spinning, and/or intense movement experiences
- is a “thrill-seeker”; dangerous at times
- always running, jumping, hopping etc. instead of walking
- rocks body, shakes leg, or head while sitting
- stomps feet when walking
- bites or sucks on fingers and/or frequently cracks his/her knuckles
- grinds his/her teeth throughout the day
- frequently hits, bumps or pushes others
- chews on objects
Evaluation and Treatment
Sensory integration begins with a thorough evaluation. Occupational therapists begin by observing a customer’s behaviors, how they respond to various situations and environments, discussing their sensory preferences with the customer, their support staff and/or family. Then, the therapist applies the knowledge of sensory integration principles to determine the customer’s sensory profile, including:
- what sensory input they crave or avoid;
- what sensory input they under-register;
- if they have challenges modulating or controlling their arousal level.
Overall, the OT uses all of this information to put together the big picture for the customer in terms of how they process sensory information and how they react to it. This helps the OT gather the necessary information to formulate a treatment plan.
Be sure to watch our brief Sensory Integration Video.
Many customers at CWO have sensory diets. These are structured programs of sensory activities in which the customer either passively participates, for example:
- Accepts brushing
- Wears noise reducing headphones
- Wears pressure vest
Or actively participates, for example:
- Plays with shaving cream
- Rocks in a chair
These activities are individually selected for a customer based on their unique sensory need. Goals towards treatment include increased engagement in daily tasks. By helping our customers to better process internal sensory information, they are better prepared to perform functional activities.
Who Does Sensory Integration Help?
Populations served by our Sensory Integration program include individuals who have various degrees of neurological and developmental disabilities. These include individuals with neurological and/or physical impairments. People with development disabilities may experience problems with language, mobility, learning, self-help and independent living. They may also have vision or hearing deficits. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are also coming in this population. This includes autism, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger disorder.
How Does Sensory Integration Help?
Sensory integration services provided at CWO benefit customers by giving them resources to help them interpret and sort out sensory information. This can have an impact on improving a customer’s:
- Gross and fine motor skills
- Eye contact
- Social Skills
- Emotional behavior
- Language development
- Engagement in purposeful activities