Sensory Integration Lab for Occupational Therapy Students
Your central nervous system can be considered a pyramid of learning. The bottom has your tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses. Then you have sensory systems (like olfactory), then sensorimotor (like postural security), then perceptual motor (like eye-hand coordination), and then finally, cognition, which is where daily living activities and academic learning take place.
“Sensory Integration” is a big thing in occupational therapy, but it’s not what most people think. It’s not passive – it involves active participation from the client. Sensory integration is “the ability of the brain to organize sensory input so it can be used appropriately.”
Tactile System: Important for protection, discrimination, etc. The reason babies like to put things in their mouth is because the mouth has a lot of tactile receptors and so it gives them a lot of feedback!
One really neat way to work on tactile discrimination is to put easy-discernible objects in a little black box or in a bucket of dried beans/rice, and then have the child/person identify the object using only their tactile sense…no looking!
Proprioceptive System: It has to do with position and movement of body parts….like if you close your eyes and someone moves one of your arms, can you move your other one to match it? A lot of children benefit from proprioceptive input, like pushing against a wall or heavy furniture (joint compression). Knowledge of your body’s position in space is important for muscle tone, balance, motor planning, etc.
The little girl I used to work with, Celia, definitely had some proprioception issues. She seemed to have a better “feel” for herself after we would do things like push heavy furniture across the room.
Vestibular System: Figuring out your position of head in space (which therefore affects your body position) – important for balance, muscle tone, visual perception, etc. (This is where you get back into neurobiology and have to discuss things like “the bundle of the medial longitudinal fasisculus”, vestibulospinal tracts, oculomotor nerves, utricles and saccules, etc. I am doing a Level II fieldwork (3 months) in a vestibular program so I guess I better learn this stuff! I kind of think I have some vestibular issues myself!
Many people have sensory processing dysfunction, and there are three types – sensory modulation disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory based motor disorder.
Pretty much everyone has some kind of “sensory issue” though. Like some people hate getting their hands wet, or touching certain textures.
Some people are over-reactive to sensory stimuli and get really upset with things that don’t bother “typical” people (ie, non-noxious stimuli). Others are under-reactive and these are the people (or okay, kids) who you see rubbing against walls, falling on the ground for fun, leaning into their neighbor at play time…they are sensory seeking!
Now think about how important your senses are in terms of telling you about the world. If they are under active or overactive, it’s going to affect everything else about you!
A big part of sensory problems is dyspraxia, which has to do with a problem conceiving, planning, and/or sequencing new actions. So for example, you might pat your head, pat your tummy, pat your knees, quickly, twice in a row. A kid with dyspraxia would be all over the place trying to figure out how to coordinate their body.
The Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT), developed by Ayres in the late 1980’s, are classics still used today!
The evidence on SI tends to be inconclusive in the sense that some studies show it works, other studies say it doesn’t. My opinion is that it can DEFINITELY make a difference for some kids when done by a well-trained and experienced professional, and that it never hurts to have the knowledge or “tools” to use some SI as needed.
I would write a lot more but I have to stop somewhere! Check out the Out of Sync Child and the Out of Sync Child Has Fun, for some great information about SI in kids!
Thanks, Allison, for helping me out with this!
HUGE DISCLAIMER: The information above was my paraphrased version of my own understanding of SI, based on a combination of lecture, books and personal experience. If anything is wrong or misleading or not worded well, it’s totally my fault! And don’t take anything I say as the final word since I’m a student and um, I’d like to become an occupational therapist one day and not be derailed by licensure issues. So go do your own research on SI if you plan to do anything based on this knowledge…I’m just sharing what is in my brain..right or wrong. And from now on I’m not going to even paraphrase lectures/give educational minies, since I’m going to try and stay out of the sticky world of intellectual copyright and all that!