Sensory integration, that is the work of senses
The brain does not act alone. It receives stimuli from the outside world through various senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, vestibular as well as proprioceptive and interoceptive systems. What is important is the fact that those senses do not function standalone but rather complement one another. For example, the vestibular system helps maintain balance but it also often (especially while walking on the curb or climbing a flight of stairs) relies on the support from the sense of sight.
The three relatively less-known senses include the vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive systems.
Vestibular system - sense of balance
The vestibular system consists of two types of receptors located in the inner ear. It is responsible for movement and fluidity of movement of the eyeball, the head and the whole body. It allows us to determine the direction, tilt of both body and head as well as coordinate movement and balance the body.
This sense is based on receptors located in muscles, joints and tendons. Proprioception allows us to feel the movement of our bodies as well as adjust the force, bending angle and direction of a particular movement. Proprioception is used for pushing, pulling, clenching and bending etc.
Interoception is an internal sense that allows our body to self-regulate temperature, pulse and breath as well as recognize increased heart rate, the so-called butterflies in the stomach, hunger, thirst, pressure within the intestines and bladder.
Symptoms of sensory integration disorders
Before the child is directed to a specialist, parents ought to pay close attention to their little one. Delay, inappropriate response or untypical behavior not always have to indicate serious developmental disorders. Children develop at different paces and minor deviations will be sooner or later corrected. However, when the little one cannot equal its peers for several consecutive months, it is worth to schedule consultations.
The typical symptoms of sensory integration disorders include:
- hypersensitivity or undersensitivity to touch,
- hypersensitivity or undersensitivity to images,
- hypersensitivity or undersensitivity to sounds,
- hypersensitivity or undersensitivity to movement,
- excessive or insufficient activity,
- lack of coordination and fluidity of movement,
- weak fine and gross motor skills (low level of motor skills),
- speech delay,
- problems with behavior, learning and organization,
- low self-esteem.
Sensory integration – disorders
Quite recently - in 2015, Zoe Mailloux and L. Diane Parham, both involved in the topic of sensory integration, distinguished 4 categories of problems related to it:
Problems with sensory modulation (intensity of sensations)
It might seem that we all experience stimuli from the outside world in an exact manner, but in fact that is not completely true. Differences in the level of sensation can be extreme, i.e. persons with hypersensitivity to touch experience washing, combing and even – in some cases – wearing clothes made from specific fabrics highly uncomfortable. On the other hand, persons with lowered sensitivity to touch might not feel a gust of wind or someone's hand placed on their arm, or might experience someone's handshake in insufficiently.
The intensity of experienced stimuli have a great influence on performing particular activities but also can be decisive in terms of safety, i.e. lack of sensitivity to touch might result in lack of escape or withdrawal reflex when stabbed or hit.
It ought to be noted that both hypersensitivity and lowered sensitivity to stimuli is experienced by patients as uncomfortable. Thus, in both cases we may deal with searching for an optimal state – children with hypersensitive hearing or skin might avoid certain stimuli while those who experience stimuli insufficiently – will look for them. Such escapes and searches are not always safe, i.e. a child that hits its head on the wall or slaps its face in order to ensure a sufficient dose of touch might ultimately cause harm to oneself. Responses might also lead to social isolation, i.e. a child that refrains from sounds that we usually fail to recognize might perceive them as unbearable and, as a result, become alienated.
Problems with perception
Problems with perception might indicate faulty processing and interpretation of received stimuli. Children with sight perception disorders might recognize particular elements of an image but be unable to read it as a whole. Children with impaired hearing perception might have problems with dividing and combining words, tend to articulate words only partially, add similarly sounding words as well as experience difficulties with comprehending texts etc.
In case of such disorders, the brain is not able to bring proper sense to images, sounds or movement.
Problems with the vestibular system
Children with dysfunctional vestibular systems experience difficulties in maintaining balance and balancing their bodies. This results in somewhat clumsiness. Difficulties are manifested in case of walking, jumping, playing ball, bike riding as well as reading and writing. In case of the latter, associating the cause with its result might prove extremely difficult.
Problems with motor planning
This dysfunction is called dyspraxia. Children seem equally clumsy in terms of movement as in case of problems with the vestibular system, however the background of the problem is different. Children suffering from dyspraxia cannot plan their movement from beginning to end. This might be shocking for persons who develop properly and usually do not perform any mental labor in order to plan consecutive sequences of movement and rather do it intuitively.
This problem is particularly visible while performing new motor exercises for both fine and gross motor skills. Children with dyspraxia find it more difficult to assess how to use their bodies in order to achieve particular results, i.e. tie their shoes or throw a ball into a basket.
What to do when the child has sensory integration disorders
There is no one way that the parents ought to take. This is due to the fact that such disorders have different courses and intensity among children. Small changes will be sufficient in some families while in other the conduct would be much more complex.
Most of all, the problems ought to be thoroughly diagnosed. Means of coping with them should be established afterwards. Sensory integration therapists along with pre-school and school tutors specialized in oligofrenopedagogy ought to be helpful in this case as well.
Furthermore, it would be also necessary to change one's approach towards a child suffering from sensory integration disorders as well as adjust expectations to the child's possibilities and conduct therapies in both therapeutic office and in home. Working with the child ought to include groups of persons much broader than parents and teachers. However, both friends and family should be informed about the established means of approach.
In addition, new equipment will become helpful for home therapies. For example, a weighted blanket, a weighted vest, mattresses and an abundance of different plastic materials. On the other hand, some objects ought to be removed, i.e. a loud doorbell, clothing labels, scented candles etc.
The order of the day ought to be adjusted as well. Sometimes, it will need to be regulated and adhered to specified hours of meals, classes and sleep (rituals are of utmost importance for children with sensory integration disorders). In some cases, it will be necessary to find a lot of time to work with the child.
The biggest challenge to be overcome is in terms of emotions and endurance of parents. Beginnings are often hard, but practice shows that a combination of work, co-operation with specialists and consequence brings excellent results even in the most difficult cases.