Understanding the Sensory Integration Process


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Sensory Processing Disorder can affect anyone. Studies indicate that 5% to 16% of children exhibit symptoms of SPD. (Ahn, Miller et. al., 2004; Ben-Sasoon, Carter et. al., 2009)


The Neurology of How We Feel

We are all familiar with the sensory aspects of day to day life. You might find that going to the gym or on long nature walks help you to feel calmer and more focused during the day. Or perhaps you know that massages, music, aromatherapy, or super spicy food help you feel more alive, grounded, and able to cope with your day-to-day. Most of us have built ourselves a sensory lifestyle without giving it too much thought. How these processes work, and the impact they have on our health and well-being, deserves as much attention as other domains of wellness. 

Our bodies and brains use specialized systems to register all the different sensory information in our environment and piece it together to build a complete picture of: what is going on around us, with our bodies, within our bodies, where we are, and what time of day it is. Sensory processing shapes our experiences in the world and impacts our feelings.

Touch, sight, sound, movement, body position, smell, taste, internal sensation. Each of these senses comes together to build your conscious reality. 

This brain-body process is taking place every second of every day and through the attention, it pays to external and internal information we form our perception of the world, our lived conscious experienced. 

How we sense, experience, and feel the world is critical to safety and helps us move our bodies, complete tasks, make friends, and fall in love. Making sense of sensation is what makes us successful.

We call this sensory processing.

Sensory Health & Wellness

Sensory processing is the neurology of how we feel. The sensory messages we receive from our bodies and the world around us are responded to in everything we do in life - whether it’s the comfort we feel from a warm hug from a loved one, the joy from the music we listen to, the feeling of satiation after eating, the ability to stay upright on moving bus or the act of learning / mastering a sport. In each instance, our sensory systems contribute vital information that we use to be successful. We couldn’t do these things without our sensory systems. 

Our ability to process sensory data does not usually require conscious thought or cognitive effort. It provides emotional stability, a platform for social interaction, a sense of self, well-being, satisfaction, and/or accomplishment. Sensory processing can also influence every area of living including our preferences in diet, exercise, relationships, career, and hobbies. 

It is through the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, proprioception, interception, and vestibular input) that infants first learn about their caregivers, through touch that they first form attachments, and through smell that they identify their birth mother. In the early years of life, there are very few, if any, experiences that are not deeply sensory in nature. Indeed, most early experiences are entirely sensory and entirely emotional. This is how we form relationships, learn to communicate, and develop the foundation blocks for psychological well-being. All of these experiences enable us to develop solid brain architecture that sets us up for success in school and later in the workplace.

Sensory processing is where we learn that we can impact the world. First through our bodies as we lift our heads up against gravity, roll over, crawl, and stand. Also through play as we knock over blocks, shake a musical rattle, and drop items off the high chair tray. This is where our intention first starts to marry with the action that we take. We develop sense-of-self through these early experiences, we learn how to solve problems, we learn that we can impact objects and people, we develop executive function and theory of mind. We also develop motor skills that demonstrate increased finesse and coordination and become more and more gracious and refined with practice. 

The sensory domain is where the brain and body connect and thrive. It is through robust sensory processing that we develop resilience, and establish a tolerance for stressful situations, learn to be calm under pressure, and process experiences that are challenging or upsetting. With well-integrated sensory processing comes a wealth of daily sensory-affective and sensory-motor experiences that cultivates the development of autonomy, competence, interest in learning, goal orientation, sense of purpose, resilience, social engagement, and agency. 

Sensory processing is a critical aspect of well-being through the life-span and the bridge between physical and mental health.

The Eight Sensory Systems

Most people are surprised to find out that we actually have eight sensory systems rather than five. Learn more about these eight systems in detail. Each of the eight sensory systems contributes to our sense of safety, to mastery of our own body, and to the resultant sensory-affective combination.

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Tactile
  • Olfactory
  • Gustatory
  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception
  • Interoception

Pioneering occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.

Causes of Disordered Sensory Processing (SPD)

The exact cause of Sensory Processing Disorder has not yet been identified. Preliminary studies and research suggest that SPD is often inherited. Prenatal and birth complications have also been implicated as causal in SPD, as well as certain environmental factors.  A summary of research into the causes and prevalence of SPD is included in Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder (New York: Perigee, 2014, 2nd edition). written by Founder and current Executive Director of STAR Institute, Lucy Jane Miller Ph.D., OTR

Ten Fundamental Facts About SPD

When extended family, teachers, neighbors, other parents, and service providers ask you what Sensory Processing Disorder is, the following are research-supported statements you can make.

  1. Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children and adults.
  2. Parent surveys, clinical assessments, and laboratory protocols exist to identify children with SPD.
  3. At least one in twenty people in the general population may be affected by SPD.
  4. In children who are gifted and those with ADHD, Autism, and fragile X syndrome, the prevalence of SPD is much higher than in the general population.
  5. Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children who are typically developing.
  6. Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children with ADHD.
  7. Sensory Processing Disorder has unique sensory symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders.
  8. Heredity may be one cause of the disorder.
  9. Laboratory studies suggest that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are not functioning typically in children with SPD.
  10. Preliminary research data support decades of anecdotal evidence that occupational therapy is an effective intervention for treating the symptoms of SPD.

– from Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD ) p. 249-250 by Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR