Sensory Integration: Building Blocks

Sensory Integration: Building Blocks

The majority of learning disabilities stem from underlying sensory processing disorder. When the child's sensory processing issues are addressed through sensory integration intervention, the road blocks to the way the child processes starts to come down, and the distortions are replaced with free flowing, faster, processing skills.

When children have sensory processing disorders, they have distortions to the way they perceive their world, and learning becomes labored and delayed. Until the sensory processing is addressed with the brain being rewired with new neuro-pathways for increased processing speed and access to information retrieval, your child will struggle and shut down academically.  It is important for caregivers to understand that the child with sensory processing disorder will not "grow out of it" on their own. These children need understanding and help, for no child can overcome the obstacles alone. They need to be treated by a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in treatment for sensory processing disorders. The earlier you treat the sensory issues the greater the results because the brain's ability to rewire and reorganize itself is more adaptable the younger the child.

Our sensory system is made up of seven basic senses: smell, touch, taste, vision/visual perception, hearing/auditory processing, movement/balance, and kinesthesia/muscle tone. Sensory Integration (also called Sensory Processing) is the brain's ability to interpret, organize, and respond to the information that we receive through these senses for functional behavior. It receives sensory messages and turns them into responses. This helps us orient to the world around us. It helps us relax, concentrate, and move safely throughout our day. The more efficient our nervous system processes the information it receives, the better our response to the stimulus, and the more coordinated, or "in sync," we become with our environment.

Sensory processing disorders are more common than people are aware of and affect about 10% of the population. Sensory processing issues range from mild to severe. These sensory distortions lead to behavior problems, affect the way we move through our environment, influence the way we learn, relate to others, and how we feel about ourselves.

The brain is designed to constantly take in sensory information for optimal brain function. When it is deprived of daily stimulation, it malfunctions, resulting in the inability to process information received through the senses. When two or more senses are malfunctioning, it is called sensory processing disorder.

Jean Ayres is the founder of sensory integration. She devoted her career to studying the role that our senses play in brain function and behavior. Ayres believed that sensory input was nourishment for the brain, just as food is nourishment for the body. A growing brain needs daily stimulation of various sensory activities with appropriate intensities for an individual child's needs.

Ayres used the term "adaptive response" to explain the process of a child's ability to organize a successful, goal-directed action on the environment. When a child is forced to make an adapted response, it is because the child is faced with some challenge that is presented in his or her environment. The adaptive response is possible because the brain efficiently receives messages coming in and responds with the appropriate action. Adaptive responses help the child acquire skills such as walking, running, riding a bicycle, jumping rope, kicking a ball, hitting a ball with a bat, catching and tossing a ball, and hitting a target.

The more complex the adaptive response, the more organized and efficient the sensory processing becomes, leading to more neuro networks to be elicited or activated. The refinement of adaptive responses provides a sensorimotor foundation (integration of movement and sensory input) for higher-order functions leading to self-esteem, self-control, self-confidence, academic learning; the ability to concentrate, the ability to organize, the capacity for abstract thought and reasoning, and specialization of each side of the body and the brain.

There are four foundational levels of sensory processing within our central nervous system for age appropriate development and academic success. Each level requires mastery for solid progression to the next level. If mastery is not acquired, then developmental delays in levels 2, 3, and 4 will develop because of gaps in the preliminary foundation (Level 1). For example, if the child has difficulty with auditory processing (Level 1), then they will have developmental delays in speech and language skills (Level 3).


Sensory Processing: Level 1

Our basic seven senses are the foundation of our sensory processing, which develop our perceptions of the world around us. These are: smell, touch, taste, vision/visual perceptions, hearing/auditory processing, movement/balance, and kinesthesia/muscle tone. They are regulated by our vestibular system. The vestibular system sits between the brain stem and the cerebellum. All sensory input that comes in to our body gets registered in the vestibular system and then quickly sent on to the higher cortex levels of the brain and then the cortex quickly responds back to the stimuli. When the vestibular system is underdeveloped or immature for whatever reason, road blocks or distortions develop and the processing is delayed or impaired. We must have a solid foundation of level 1 for the higher levels to work from.

Children need daily vestibular stimulation through activities and exercises that incorporate jumping, bouncing, swing, spinning, walking, running, or any kind of movement in space.

Sensory Motor: Level 2

As your sensory processing becomes integrated, the child then develops the ability to imitate, gain security during movement, learns to filter irrelevant input, and becomes aware of each side of their body. Children with ADHD or language delays tend to have issues in this level with their auditory processing skills. They have difficulty keeping up with note taking, benefiting from lectures, and auditory learning in general. They have difficulty differentiating the low frequency sound waves from the high frequency sound waves in their environment and hear them at the same volume. This would be like trying to listen to someone speak while a vacuum is running next to you. A person needs to be able to put the low frequency sounds in the background and focus his or her attention on the high frequency sound waves, which are our voices, to understand what is being heard.

Perceptual Motor: Level 3

As the child's central nervous systems efficiently processes the sensory input in their environment, they will develop visual and auditory attention, language skills, and eye-hand coordination. In order to have good hand writing skills, a child needs to have stability in their shoulder muscles, elbow, and wrist, along with grip strength to hold the writing tool properly and have mobility in the fingers to form the letters. They need good visual perceptual skills to color within the lines, draw shapes, people, and objects, as well as, cut with scissors. Depth perception, spatial awareness, and visual accommodation are all prerequisites for good handwriting skills.

Cognition: Level 4

This level requires a solid foundation of the lower levels in order to develop self-control/regulation (behavior), to learn and grow academically, and to learn to feed, dress, and bathe themselves. At level 4, the child will have the ability to concentrate, develop organizational skills, self-esteem, self-control, and self-confidence, with the capacity for abstract though and reasoning, along with specialization of each side of the brain and body.

For a child to reach their full potential they need to have a solid foundation of sensory processing skills. When parents take a proactive approach to parenting and start providing sensory integration activities as soon as they get settled in from  bringing their baby home from the hospital, they can minimize or completely eliminate any issues that may occur.

Babies are not born with a how-to manual, but this is what you have with Advance My Baby. You can now put into place the building blocks that lead to academic success, athletic prowess, emotional balance and social acceptance. For the first time, instruction is provided for the first 36 months of life that create the ultimate foundation for your baby.

Advance My Baby, is the first parent-friendly manual to address all areas of development. Each chapter covers developmental areas of gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, language, emotional/social, and self-care skills with color photos, graphics, and activities/exercises for your baby. It is a self-help manual for parents that will empower and equip them with the developmental knowledge necessary for their child to reach their full potential. 

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Written by: Paula Tarver, OTR/L See other articles by Paula Tarver, OTR/L
About the Author:

Paula Tarver, OTR/L and Jeanne Martin, OTR/L are co-authors of Advance My Baby. Babies are not born with a how-to manual, but this is what you have with Advance My Baby. You can now put into place the building blocks that lead to academic success, athletic prowess, emotional balance and social acceptance. For the first time, instruction is provided for the first 36 months of life that create the ultimate foundation for your baby.

Advance My Baby, is the first parent-friendly manual to address all areas of development. Each chapter covers developmental areas of gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, language, emotional/social, and self-care skills with color photos, graphics, and activities/exercises for your baby. It is a self-help manual for parents that will empower and equip them with the developmental knowledge necessary for their child to reach their full potential. 

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