Sensory integration (SI) is the neurological process that organises sensation from one's own body and the environment. It enables everyday life (Allen and Smith 2011). For most people, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities.
For some people, sensory integration does not develop as efficiently as it should. This is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD) or dysfunction in sensory integration (DSI). DSI and SPD are both ways to describe the difficulty some people's nervous systems have with taking in, integrating and making use of sensory information. This changes how the person then responds to changes in their own body, the environment and how they interact with it and others around them.
Sensory processing difficulties can influence self-regulation, movement, learning and interaction with others (Allen and Smith 2011). SPD can interfere with skills that support performance, such as engagement and attention, as well as skills that enable the learning of new motor skills (Cosby, 2010; Jasmin, 2009).
Sensory processing difficulties can occur across the lifespan. They can been seen in isolation or, more frequently, in combination with other diagnoses - including Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Attention Deficit, Learning Disabilities, Developmental Coordination Disorder and Regulatory Disorder.
Overview of SI
SI and Development
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Getting help is important if you suspect someone has sensory processing difficulties. This will usually involve a referral for specialist assessment, therapy and support:
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Categories of SPD
Dr L J Miller's proposed taxonomy of sensory processing disorders identifies three main categories:
Sensory Modulation Disorders:
This is where there is difficulty grading or regulating response to sensory stimulus. There are three subtypes:
- Sensory over-responsive - where the individual responds too much, for too long or to too weak an intensity;
- Sensory under-responsive - where the individual responds too little or needs extremely strong stimulus to became aware of stimulus; and
- Sensory seeking - where the responds with intense searching for more or stronger stimulus.
Sensory Based Motor Disorder:
This is divided into two proposed subtypes:
- Postural disorder - with disordered balance and core stability; and
- Dyspraxia - which encompasses sequencing, motor planning and organisation.
Sensory Discrimination Disorder:
This is where the individual has difficulty interpreting the specific characteristics of sensory stimuli (eg, intensity, duration, speed and timing). Difficulties can be present in any of the seven senses: touch, proprioception, vestibular, visual, auditory, olfactory or gustatory.