By Jon Hsieh*, MSW, LCSW
Has your child ever been described as picky, oversensitive, difficult, emotionally intense, clumsy or prone to not listening? Has your child ever been described as a motor, always on the go — jumping, swinging, twirling? Or as all "too shy" — planting themselves in a nice quiet corner avoiding active games? As you read this, you may be thinking, "what child hasn't been described this way at one time or another?" But for some parents, there are times they sit back and wonder why their child displays such different or difficult behavior so regularly. One possible explanation is a little known, and often misunderstood, problem called Sensory Integration Disorder. SID can affect anywhere from 5 to 15% of children.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory Integration is a neurological process of organizing information we receive from our bodies and the world around us. Every minute of every day we are receiving millions of sensations. The primary task of the central nervous system is to organize all of the senses and the brain's primary task is to be a sensory processing machine. Think for a moment what happens to you when you put your shirt on and you feel the tag on the back of your neck or why you don't feel it? What happens when you smell warmed baked bread? What happens when three people are talking to you all at the same time? Some of the things we learn to do with our senses are to turn off the familiar ones (like tuning out background noise), and tune in to the ones that are important (someone just called my name.) Those abilities to sort through and manage information from our senses are crucial to everyday life. If there are any problems in organizing and interpreting our senses, this can impact a child's learning, how they relate to others, and how they feel about themselves.
Ok, what are the senses?
For sensory integration to go smoothly, the senses must work together. We have several kinds of senses: taste, touch, smell, seeing and hearing are the most commonly identified. Another is the vestibular sense — which involves processing information we receive through the inner ear to affect balance, gravity and movement. Yet another sense is called the proprioceptive sense — which receives information through the joints, ligaments and muscles that affect body parts, position and control. All of these senses are fundamental to learning and development.
What is Sensory Integration Dysfunction?
Simply, Sensory Integration Dysfunction is an inefficiency or "short" in the circuitry. It is when a child's brain takes in too little or too much sensory information. Too much information results in hypersensitivity (oversensitive/over reactive.) Too little information results in hyposensitivity (undersensitive/under reactive.) When a child is over stimulated, he or she will seek to avoid things (sensation avoidance.) When a child is under stimulated, he or she will seek more stimulation (sensation seeking.) When a child is doing sensation seeking or sensation avoiding, it can be frustrating for parents, the child and those around them.
How do I find out if my child has this problem?
There are some Occupational Therapists who are trained to assess, diagnose and treat Sensory Integration Disorder in children. The symptoms can overlap with other issues that may be present, such as anxiety disorders, ADHD, Autism and even Depression. Many of these issues have a component of sensory problems in the mix. Also, studies indicate that approximately 70% of children with learning disabilities have sensory issues. If you are wondering about your own child, please consider seeking consultation with those trained to help you in these areas. If you would like further information on this topic, please go to our resource pages — Sensory Integration Disorder— to explore this topic further. If your child has sensory issues, there is hope. And early intervention can increase the likelihood that your child can get back in-sync.