What is Sensory Integration?

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 integration 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 integration 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.

As a term sensory integration can be used to mean different things:

A definition

'Sensory Integration sorts, orders and eventually puts all the sensory inputs together into whole brain function.' Jean Ayres 1979. What emerges from this process is increasingly complex behaviour, the adaptive response and occupational engagement. 

A theory

Sensory Integration is a theory is based on the concept that brain "maturation is the process of the unfolding of genetic coding in conjunction with the interaction of the individual with the physical and social environment.  As a result of experience, there are changes in the nervous system." (Spitzer and Roley in Smith Roley et al, 2001).

Sensory qualities of the environment can positively or negatively interact with  function and development (Schneider et al, 2008). 

A process of typical development

Ayres, 1979, believed that sensory integration is integral to the process of healthy development ‘when the functions of the brain are whole and balanced, body movements are highly adaptive, learning is easy and good behaviour is a natural outcome'

A disorder

Sensory Integration is the neurological process that organizes sensation from ones own body and the environment. It enables everyday life.  Sensory processing difficulties can influence self-regulation, movement, learning and interaction with others. (Allen and Smith 2011) 

It 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).

SI therapy - a therapeutic approach

Sensory Integration Therapy - Direct 1 to 1 therapy with an Occupational Therapist, Physiotherapist or Speech and Language Therapist with postgraduate training*, in an environment providing a variety of sensory opportunities adhering to Sensory Integration fidelity tool (Parham 2007)

Evidence identifies changes following Sensory Integration Therapy to goals set by family and therapists through Goal Attainment Scaling (Miller 2007)

  • functional behaviour
  • motor skills
  • attention
  • cognitive skills
  • social skills
  • self-harming
  • self-stimulation

*minimum standards are recommended by the International Coalition for Excellence in Sensory Integration

Allen, Delport and Smith 2011.

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