Monday, January 04, 2016

Sensory Integration: Recognizing and Responding to Young Children with Sensory Issues

What is Sensory Integration?  It’s the neurological process of organizing sensory inputs for function in life. The brain takes in sensory information (sound, touch, etc.) and sends signals to the body on how to respond.

Did you know that we really have 7 senses? You’ll notice there are two extra ones here in addition to the ones we learn in school-body position (also known as proprioceptive-your sense of your body position in space) and balance (also known as vestibular-affects balance and movement).  Your vestibular sense is based in your inner ear and it tells your brain that your body is moving. Your proprioceptive sense is brought in through joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons and gives your brain the position of where your body is in space (can you touch your nose with your eyes closed?) .

Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological problem with sensory integration. A person is unable to respond effectively to inputs from one or more senses to the point where daily life activities are impacted. For example, problems with proprioception can cause difficulties with learning how to type, holding scissors, because of needing to be able to sense where one’s hands are without looking. Everyone has some sensory problems, but it is when it causes problems with daily living that it is considered a sensory processing disorder or SPD.

It is estimated that 1 in 20 have a sensory processing disorder and they may or may not have another diagnosis. 90% of people diagnosed with Autism have sensory processing disorders. The exact cause of sensory processing disorders is unknown although genetic and environmental factors are suspected and the speaker mentioned that babies born prematurely or to parents addicted to drugs/alcohol may be more likely to have sensory processing disorders.

Kids need to coordinate all 7 senses for success. Sensory processing disorders can lead to problems with coordination, attention, handwriting, use of scissors, having a too high or too low activity level, self care problems (feeding, dressing, etc), low self esteem (noticing that you are different), poor social interaction, being over or under sensitive to outside stimuli.

2 Categories of Sensory Seekers Most Commonly Seen:

Sensory Avoiders:  These kids are oversensitive to one or more stimuli. Their brain responds too much to sensory stimuli and sends messages of pain or danger. This can cause a child who is being touched or bumped lightly to feel like they are being hit and may respond with a fight-or-flight reaction if they are tactilely defensive or they may perceive sounds as too loud or lights as too bright, be overwhelmed by smells or movement. Sensory avoiders may try to talk their way out of situations they perceive as potentially dangerous or painful like going out on the playground which could be perceived as a place that is too loud, too much movement, unpleasant tactile sensations, etc.

Sensory Seekers: Their brain and body craves more stimuli. These kids’ sensory systems are under receptive to sensory stimuli and may need more input to feel regulated. They may need crashing and spinning activities or other sensory stimuli like swinging and may never seem to get enough of these activities.

Kids can be both sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding in different areas, but not in the same area.

Sensory needs can vary throughout the day and from day to day. It is possible to have difficulties in more than one input.

Vestibular seeker (Needing movement and balance input): Brain says need more movement. Unable to sit still. Often in constant motion. Wiggle, sway, pace. May take safety risks, impulsive, run instead of walk. Can look like ADHD.

Tactile avoider: Brain says “ouch” to common experiences. Light or unexpected touch can result in screaming, biting, crying, running away as it can feel like a much greater impact than the person doing the touch intended. Kids who experience tactile avoidance may not want to hug, hold hands, may not enjoy getting messy, and can be a picky eater.

How can teachers, caregivers, those working with children help?

*Be Sensory Aware. Have new eyes about how you see challenging behaviors and what could be behind the fear, the reaction.

*Respect children’s emotions.

*Consider changing the environment and sensory inputs:

For a Vestibular seeker:

*Offer movement experiences like large motor activities that can be offered inside or outside. Breaking up quiet activities with large motor activities can help with learning and sensory needs. Some ways to do this include a mini tramp, balance beam, mat, etc.

An example of an activity could be to have different stations that kids could move to and from so as not to have to stand still too long. One could be for dress up which is another form of active play.

Some other ways to help a vestibular seeker are to offer different ways to participate like being able to stand or sit in a rocking chair, on a ball, on a pillow which can help give a sense of boundaries and also help them engage their bodies and minds more easily.

Tactile Avoiders:

*Don’t force a child to touch

*Tell the child when touch will occur.

*Prevent unexpected touch when possible by allowing the child to be a line leader or to follow after another child and/or sitting next to an adult

*Let the child build trust and initiate touch so he/she can have control.

*Look for other ways to participate in learning. Offer tools that can help with this (wearing gloves for finger painting, for example or using chopsticks or tongs) Offer the option to watch first and touch later.

Quiet Centers: Can be helpful to set up a quiet center or calming corner to go when kids are feeling overwhelmed.

Finding resources: Sensorimotor integration, Sensory processing are keywords that will help find books in our catalog that may be useful. Just using “sensory” on its own can bring up titles too although you may have to sift out some you don’t want.

Other ideas are to consult with parents, occupational therapists at pediatric/youth clinics, school special education and/or OT specialists, advocacy groups.

Erin Zolotukhin-Ridgway, George Latimer Central (

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