Sensory Integration Explained
Part 2: Sensory Processing
In part one the definition of sensory integration was explained as the ‘brains ability to take in information from the outside world as well as from the inside world of the child’s body and use this information to create purposeful activity’. The article went on to explain what the first aspect of sensory integration is, namely sensory modulation. In part 2 we will look at the second aspect of sensory integration – sensory processing.
Sensory processing is the ability of the brain to make sense of the incoming sensory input and use this information to participate in purposeful interaction with the environment.
Sensory processing includes processes such as developing eye movements and visual form perception, postural tone and stability, tactile processing and in-hand manipulation. Body scheme and visual spatial perception are also important aspects of sensory processing.
The major results of poor sensory processing, particularly the processing of vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile inputs, are low muscle tone and difficulty with motor planning.
Low muscle tone:
Low muscle tone leads to a floppy body that has difficulty maintaining postures against gravity. As a result children with low tone often lean on external support when standing, rest their heads on their hands when sitting at a table or lie down at the table while working. Low toned children also tend to fatigue easily due to their muscle weakness and the additional effort required to perform motor skills. As a result these children often do not take part in or struggle with gross motor activities and this leads to poorer development of other skills such as bilateral integration and midline crossing.
Motor planning is the process of conceiving, planning, sequencing and executing motor actions. In order to successfully plan movements we need to have a correct knowledge of where our body is in space (proprioception) the direction of movement of our body through space in relation to gravity (vestibular) as well as the ability to perceive tactile feedback from our bodies regarding how movements feel and what we are touching before, throughout and after movement.
Motor planning difficulties can be very frustrating and confusing as often the child knows what he/she wants to do or understands the demand but is unable to access the motor plans that are necessary in order to be successful as executing the task. Children with poor motor planning often display inconsistent motor performance and can often easily perform complex actions (e.g. somersaults) while simple actions such as imitating movements in games like ‘Simon says’ are difficult. Practice, concentration and fatigue significantly affect their ability to plan and carry out motor sequences. Motor planning also affects the child’s ability to sequence, time and grade motor activities as their poor body awareness does not provide them with the necessary or correct information to allow the anticipation of motor demands and the alteration of motor sequences once action has been imitated.
As a result of motor planning difficulties children may present with slow or inefficient performance of basic self care tasks such as dressing, they may have difficulty with articulation and sentence construction and they often have organisational difficulties that manifest in their school work. Due to the functional implications of poor motor planning these children are often manipulative in an attempt to direct their own actions as well as the actions of others, or they avoid motor activities and seek out sedentary play activities in an attempt to compensate.
In addition to low muscle tone and motor planning difficulties poor sensory processing can negatively impact on a child’s cognitive and social skills. These are observable behaviours that include learning, planning, concepts, memory, visual perception, visual motor integration, gross and fine motor skills, and interpersonal skills.
Treatment of Sensory Processing Difficulties:
Intervention for children with poor sensory processing is dependent on the severity of the child’s difficulty, which sensory system is most affected, the functional outcomes that result and whether or not the child presents with sensory modulation difficulties as well as the sensory processing difficulties.
In the case of the child who does not have significant modulation difficulties intervention is generally given through providing enhanced vestibular and proprioceptive sensory information to help the child to learn to process this information and integrate it into their skill performance.
If significant sensory modulation difficulties are diagnosed intervention would typically begin with addressing the sensory modulation aspect to allow the child to appropriately respond to the incoming sensory input so that they can then begin to organise this information into adequate adaptive motor responses
Tips to help your child at home:
If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.
Cheryl Bennie – Occupational Therapist
MSc (OT) Wits, BSc(OT) WITS
082 559 3023
Integration Dysfunction (Paperback) by Carol Stock Kranowitz