The way we interpret information received from all of the body’s five senses, as well as the environment around us, is referred to as sensory integration. The body’s senses do not work alone; they work in unison to paint a complete picture of the world and how we fit in it. It’s because of sensory integration that you can understand who you are, where you are, and what is going on around you.
Meaning is assigned to one’s sensory experiences based on the combination of sights, scents, sounds, textures, and tastes. Based on the information received from the senses you learn how to respond in appropriate ways to various sensory experiences.
When you’re in a shopping mall you can immediately tell when you’re near a nail salon because of the scent in the air. Eventually you start to walk a bit faster to avoid the area next time you encounter that odor again. Based on how an apple feels in your hand you can get an idea of how fresh it will taste when you bite into it. Eventually you learn which are the best apples to select from the grocery store. Those are a couple examples of how we learn from and assign meaning to sensory experiences.
There are various levels of functioning when it comes to sensory integration. There’s a condition called sensory processing disorder that can cause great difficulty completing day-to-day activities. We’ll compare and contrast regular sensory integration functioning with the difficulties experienced by those with sensory processing disorder.
Levels of Sensory Integration Functioning
Regular functioning occurs without any thought. In the morning you might find yourself ironing clothes for work, talking with your colleague over speakerphone, and tending to the family dog who is nagging you for food. With all senses working together you’re able to complete all of those tasks without even thinking about it because of your adaptive memory. Being able to iron a shirt without burning it, all while focusing on a conversation and an outside distraction is an example of regular functioning.
When there’s a dysfunction, people have difficulty interpreting what’s going on in and around them. In the example given above, someone with sensory processing disorder would have to focus far too much on the ironing to be able to devote attention to anything else going on. Another example of a dysfunction is when someone has an inappropriate response to a sensory experience. A person with sensory processing disorder may avoid ironing altogether because they don’t like the smell of the steam it produces. Whereas someone with regular functioning may find the odor unpleasant and iron the shirt anyway, the person with sensory processing disorder would prefer to avoid the activity even if it meant leaving the house with creased clothing.
For most of us, SI skills develop naturally during childhood. Likewise, symptoms of sensory processing disorder will be observed during childhood. The first step towards helping a child with his or her sensory issues is to empathize with how they experience the world. For further information we recommend looking into the many resources we provide for parents.
This blog post was provided by a contributing author.