side banner

Sensory Integration, Defined in Words That Can Be Understood

Although this is a complex neurological condition of the brain, the concept of how this may affect someone can be considered in simple terms:
The information sent to our brains from each of our senses; movement, balance, touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell, is processed. Our brain tells us how something feels, what it looks like, what it sounds like, or how it tastes, and smells. This is simple sensory integration. Our brains perceive sensory information from all the senses and organs of our bodies, process it, and reports back to us what is happening.

When SI Works for You

Think about how sensory information works for you. Touch a hot pan on the stove. The nerves send the signal to your brain. Your brain thinks about it, and let you know the pan is hot. Ouch! The sending, receiving and processing of this signal occurs in a millisecond.

This is sensory integration (processing) working at its finest. Taste an apple that is crunchy and sweet. Step over a glass bottle that you see on the sidewalk. Hear the normal sounds of your house, the refrigerator running, the furnace kicking on, and ignore it. Sit in a restaurant and talk to your family, paying no attention to the other voices around you. This is all sensory integration. The normal processing of sensory information.

When SI Works AGAINST You

Sensory Integration Dysfunction (now known as Sensory Processing Disorder) occurs when this process is not working right. Think again about the above examples. You touch a hot pan, and it does not feel hot, so you don’t know you are being burned. Your apple tastes bitter and is rough like gravel. You try to step over the bottle on the sidewalk, and lose your balance and fall down. You hear the sounds of your house. The refrigerator sounds like a freight train, and the furnace is blowing as loud as a tornado. You can’t stand restaurants with the clamor of people talking, the clatter of silverware, and feet shuffling. You are unable to concentrate on anything. You hate crowds with all the bumping, and shouting and all those smells make you feel sick.

This is dysfunction. The brain is not processing the information from the senses in an efficient manner. Imagine brushing your hair with a brush made out of wire, scraping across your scalp. Someone touches your arm, and it feels like you’ve been hit. Imagine the fabric of your shirt prickling so much, you want to scream and rip it off. This is it.

Sensory Processing Disorder has many symptoms, all originating with the senses. Too much or not enough is the general rule. When it is extreme, this disorder interferes with the normal living, loving and learning in daily life.

About the Internal Senses

Now that we understand the very simple thought that the brain might not accurately receive, process, and send the correct responses through our bodies, let’s take this one step further. There are more senses influenced by this disorder than those we have already considered.

The sensory systems of the internal organs, called the interoceptive sense. Controlling heart rate, hunger, digestion, state of alertness, mood, bowel/bladder control, and breathing. If we are seeing dysfunction in the first senses, there probably will be some level of dysfunction in the other senses, as well.

What if you couldn’t feel hunger? Or know when you need to use the restroom? Suppose your heart rate and breathing does not speed up when you try to jog, or will not slow down when you try to sleep. Imagine not sleeping, for a long, long time.

Sensory information is also sent to our brains about our body position, received from muscles, joints, and ligaments. This greatly affects our ability to move correctly, and if sensory processing is not working effectively, we may be unable to sit, climb, pedal a bike, and more. We may run into walls, or fall down. A lot.

How To Treat Poorly Functioning SI

This disorder affects people in different ways, and to various degrees. It is important to have a trained Occupational Therapist evaluate the person suspected of SPD. They can detect which senses are involved, to what degree, and how to proceed with therapy to help them. You can’t grow out of it. It doesn’t go away on its own. It will seriously inhibit a person’s ability to learn, have relationships, and value themselves. Proper evaluation, diagnosis, and therapy designed specifically for each person is the path of recovery. The path to more normal responses of senses.

In “Sensory Integration Dysfunction – The misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and unseen disability”, by Sandra Nelson, she states:

“I cannot imagine a case of untreated SPD that does not interfere with a child’s education. If the child is distracted and annoyed by sounds, sights, movement, (or lack of) touch, smells and tastes (among other sensations), how could these irritants not interfere with his or her education? Is this possible?”

What Do SI Problems Feel Like?

Try this: Turn on the radio, then turn it up as loud as it will go. Until it hurts your ears. Put 150 watt light bulbs in every lamp in one room, and turn them all on. Put on a pair of pants backwards and somebody else’s shoes that are too small. Shove a stiff hairbrush down the back of your shirt, so it is poking at you, and driving you crazy. Now clean the kitty litter, change the dirty baby diaper, or scoop up the dog mess in the yard, and sit it square in the middle of the table, so it wafts. Sit at your table with a food you absolutely gag on, in a chair with one leg missing. Now, snack on that food you hate. How many seconds can you stand the music that loud? The lights so bright? Those shoes so tight? And what is that smell!? Imagine if you cannot stop this. Cannot have a moment, ever, without feeling like you do right now.

Now imagine you are just a little kid, who does not know that it isn’t like this for everybody. Now, imagine you are an adult who has no idea why they feel this way.