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Sensory integration is about how our brain receives and processes sensory information so that we can do the things we need to do in our everyday life. There is a theory of sensory integration and a therapeutic approach based on the theory.
Sensory Integration Theory
Our understanding of sensory integration was initially developed in the late 60s and 70s by Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and psychologist with an understanding of neuroscience, working in the United States of America. Jean Ayres was interested in explaining how difficulties with receiving and processing sensory information from one’s body and environment could relate to difficulties at school or using one’s body to engage in everyday life.
The different parts of our body that receive sensory information from our environment (such as our skin, eyes and ears) send this information up to our brain. Our brain interprets the information it receives, compares it to other information coming in as well as to information stored in our memory and then the brain uses all of this information to help us respond to our environment. Therefore sensory integration is important in all the things that we need to do (such as getting dressed, eating, socialising, learning and working).
For most of us the development of sensory integration occurs when we are young as part of our normal development and in the things we do such as rolling, crawling, walking and in play; for others sensory integration is less well developed – see problems with sensory integration.
Jean Ayres developed a theory about what happens when sensory integration does not develop well, she developed a way of assessing these difficulties and a way of treating them. She carried out research to further develop and understand sensory integration and she treated many children with sensory integration difficulties. Since then a number of occupational therapists have continued her work. With new brain imaging techniques, much of what Ayres postulated has been supported.
Jean Ayres defined sensory integration as:
“The neurological process that organises sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively with the environment”
Photo credit: By family member (personal photo) GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sensory integration difficulties is also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD) in some regions.
Find out more with online Introduction to Sensory Integration Difficulties course.
The 8 Senses
In sensory integration we are interested in all 8 senses. You can probably immediately think of 5 – seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and the sense of touch.
The other 3 are proprioception, vestibular and interoception, these are defined below.
Our muscles and joints have tiny sensory receptors that tell our brain where our body parts are. When you put a spoon to your mouth, you don’t need to look at the spoon to see where it is or feel for your mouth to know where to place the spoon; you know where your hand is in relation to your mouth. It is largely your proprioceptive receptors giving you this information.
Your brain then uses this information to plan movements so that you can coordinate your body. See this short video.
In our inner ear we have small, fluid filled canals, the fluid in these canals moves every time we move our head. Receptors in these canals pick up the direction of movement and send this information on to our brain. So we know if we are moving forwards, backwards, side to side, tilting our head, turning round or moving up and down.
Once again, our brain uses this information to plan for movements and help us maintain our balance.
Interoception: this is a fairly new area for discussion in sensory integration; interoception is how our body tells our brain what is going on inside our body, when we are hungry or feel full, when our heart is beating fast or when we have that sensation of butterflies in the stomach.
Jean Ayres was particularly interested in the interaction between and development of the vestibular, proprioception, touch, vision, and hearing. She saw these as important in supporting our ability to use our body, concentrate, develop self-esteem and confidence as well as having self-control and academic skills.
We continue to see the link between poorly developed senses and these abilities both in research and in practice.