FOUNDATIONS: The ability to participate in learning and social interactions with ease and satisfaction is the byproduct of good communication from the senses, all of which need to function together with efficiency at an unconscious level. Part of this foundation is the healthy functioning of the CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM. Nutrition (and water!), sleep, warmth, rhythm, and healthy structural alignment all contribute to smooth and efficient neural communication. The SENSORY SYSTEMS, (TACTILE, VESTIBULAR AND PROPRIOCEPTION) contribute to this foundation. From the interaction of these systems come ALL higherfunctions, which allow us to learn and interact socially with ease and confidence.
SENSORY INTEGRATION is the organization of sensation for use. Our senses give us information about the physical conditions of our body and the environment around us. Sensations flow into the brain like streams flowing into a lake. Countless bits of sensory information enter our brain at every moment, not only from our eyes and ears, but also from every place in our bodies.
The brain must organize all of these sensations if a person is to move and learn and behave “normally”. The brain locates, sorts and orders sensations – like a traffic policeman. When sensations flow in a well-organized or integrated manner, the brain can use these sensations to form perceptions, behaviors and learning. When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush hour traffic jam.
As food nourishes the body – so can you think of sensations as “food for the brain”. They provide the energy and knowledge needed to direct the body and mind. But without well organized sensory processes, sensations cannot be digested and nourish the brain.
Until about the age of 7, the brain is primarily a sensory processing machine. It senses things and gets meaning directly from sensations. A young child does not have many thoughts or ideas about things – he is concerned mainly with sensing them and moving his body in relationship to those sensations. (More muscular or motor than mental.) Thus, the first 7 years of life are often called the years of SENSORY MOTOR DEVELOPMENT.
As the child grows older, mental and social responses replace some of this sensory-motor activity. However, the brain’s mental and social functions are based upon a foundation of sensory-motor processes. The sensory integration that occurs in moving, talking and playing is the groundwork for the more complex sensory integration that is necessary for reading, writing and good behavior. If sensory-motor processes are well organized in the first 7 years – the child will have an easier time learning mental and social skills later on.
When the sensory integrative capacity of the brain is sufficient to meet the demands of the environment, the child’s response is efficient, creative, and satisfying. When the child experiences challenges to which he can respond effectively, he “has fun”. “Fun” can be seen as the child’s word for sensory integration.
A human being is designed to enjoy things that promote the development of his brain, and we naturally seek sensations that help organize our brain. This is one of the reasons why children love to be picked up, rocked, and hugged, and why they love to run and jump and play at playgrounds and at the beach. They want to move because the sensations of movement nourish their brains.
Sensory integration is not an either/or matter. We don’t have perfect sensory integration or none at all. None of us organizes sensations perfectly. Happy, productive, well-coordinated people may come the closest to perfect sensory integration. Some people have good sensory integration, others just average, and others poor. If the brain does a poor job of integrating sensations, this will interfere
with many things in life. There will be more effort and difficulty, and less
success and satisfaction. An average of 7 to 10 percent of the children in this country have enough trouble with sensory integration to cause them to be slow learners or to have behavior problems. However, these children usually seem normal in every way, and they often have average or above average intelligence.
Some infants with sensory integrative difficulties do not roll over, creep, sit, or stand at the same age as other children. Later they may have trouble learning to tie shoes or ride a bicycle without training wheels. They may not move easily or gracefully. Running may be awkward, they may seem clumsy and frequently fall or stumble. He may not choose the kind of playthings that are popular with other children. Toys that require manipulation may be too much of a challenge. He may break things and have accidents more often than usual.
Delay in language development is a common problem in early childhood. Some children do not listen well, although they do not have hearing problems, it is as though the words entered their ears, but got lost on the way to the brain. Other children know what they want to say, but cannot direct their mouths to form the words. Without clear messages from the hands and eyes, a child cannot color between the lines, put a puzzle together, cut accurately with scissors, etc.
In every little task, he does more poorly than his peers. For him, the task is more difficult and more confusing. Adults may think that he is just not interested but he has no interest because his sensations and his responses to them do not provide him meaning and satisfaction.
Some children cannot organize the sensations from their skin. They may get angry or anxious when people touch them, or even stand nearby. Much of the hyperactivity today is due to poor sensory integration. Sometimes lights or noises will irritate and distract the child; if you watch closely you will notice the irritation in the child’s face.
Sometimes the child does everything all right at home, or at least well enough that the problem is not noticed, but has great difficulty learning in school. Educators often call reading, writing and arithmetic the “basics”, but actually these are extremely complex processes that can develop only upon a strong foundation of sensory integration.
Parents and teachers expect more of a school-age child than they do of a younger child. Not only must the child learn a wide variety of new things, but he must also get along with many classmates and teachers. The brain that does not organize sensations well is also apt to have trouble making friends and keeping them. School puts the child under a lot of stress, for he has to work harder to do the same tasks as his classmates. Many children with these difficulties feel helpless and anxious in school.
There are a lot of little things that a child has to do in school. Without good sensory integration, it is hard to learn how to tie shoelaces, hold onto a pencil, not break the lead of the pencil, change from one task to another, recognize stop signs on the way to school, and so on. The child has to pay attention in a roomful of people, although he can barely pay attention when alone with his teacher. He is expected to do things fast when he can only do them slowly, or do them slowly when it is easier to move quickly. He has to remember instructions to do two things at once – such as “put away your books and then get out your pencil” – when it is hard to remember even a single instruction.
In the classroom he is easily distracted by all the extraneous sounds, lights, and the confusion of many people doing different things. His brain is overly stimulated and it responds with a lot of excessive activity. The hyperactive child “jumps all over the classroom.” Not because that is what he wants to do, but because his brain is running out of control. His excess activity is a compulsive reaction to sensations he can neither turn off nor organize. The confusion within his brain makes it impossible to focus or concentrate, and so he can’t understand what his teacher is teaching. If he is standing in line and someone accidentally bumps into him, he may become angry or strike back. The anger and hitting have nothing to do with interpersonal relationships; they are automatic reactions to sensations the child cannot tolerate.
The child is not able to talk about these problems, nor can he understand what is going on, since the problem occurs in brain processes that are below consciousness and control. It is useless to tell him to control himself or concentrate harder. Rewards of candy or gold stars or punishment do not make it easier for the brain to organize sensations. Without careful parental support he is apt to grow up thinking that he is stupid or bad, especially since the other children tell him that he is. Only sensations and adaptive responses can build his self-esteem
THE DEVELOPING SENSES
In his first seven years, a child learns to sense his body and the world around him and to rise up and move effectively in that world. He learns what different sounds mean and how to speak. He learns how to interact with the physical forces of this planet, along with innumerable pieces of furniture, clothes, shoes, eating utensils, toys, pencils, books and of course, other people. Each of these gives him some sensory information and he must develop sensory integration to use that information and interact effectively.
Sensory integrative functions develop in a natural order, and every child follows the same basic sequence. Some children develop faster and some more slowly, but all travel pretty much the same path. Children who deviate a great deal from the normal sequence on sensory integrative development are apt to have trouble later on with other aspects of life.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF DEVELOPMENT
There are certain basic principles that we see again and again in every child. The most basic principle deals with organization. Most of the activity in the first seven years of life is part of one process: the process of organizing the sensations in the nervous system
A newborn infant sees and hears and senses his body, but he cannot organize these sensations well, and so most of them don’t mean very much to him. He can’t tell how far away things are, or what noises mean, or feel the shape of things in his hand, or know where his body is in relationship to everything else. As the child experiences sensations, he gradually learns to organize them within his brain and find out what they mean. He learns to focus his attention on particular sensations and ignore others. Movements that were clumsy and jerky in infancy become smoother and more direct in childhood. He learns the complicated movements of speech. By organizing sensations, the child gains control over his emotions. He learns to stay organized for longer periods of time. Some of the situations that upset and infant give an older child knowledge and satisfaction.
ORGANIZATION THROUGH ADAPTIVE RESPONSES
The greatest sensory-motor organization occurs during an adaptive response to sensation. This is a response in which the person deals with his body and the environment in a creative or useful way. We hear a sound and turn our head to see what happened. Someone bumps into us and we shift our weight to regain our balance. Lay an infant on his tummy, and he lifts up his head and turns it to the side so that he can breathe more easily. For the older child, putting on clothes, playing with toys, and riding a bicycle require many adaptive responses.
We adapt to sensations. Before our body can make an adaptive response, we must organize the sensations from our body and from our environment. We can adapt to a situation only if our brain knows what the situation is. When a child acts in an adaptive manner, we know that his brain is organizing sensations efficiently.
In addition, each adaptive response leads to further integration of sensations that arise from making that response. A well-organized adaptive response leaves the brain in a more organized state. To integrate sensations, a child will try to adapt to those sensations. A child on a swing will move his body in response to sensations of gravity and movement, and his movements help his brain to reorganize those sensations. Nobody can make an adaptive response for the child; he must do it himself. Fortunately children are designed to enjoy activities that challenge them to experience new sensations and develop new motor functions. It is fun to integrate sensations and form adaptive responses.
Watch a child ride a bicycle and you will see how sensory stimulation leads to adaptive responses and adaptive responses lead to sensory integration. In order to balance himself and the bicycle, the child must sense the pull of gravity and the movements of his body. Whenever he moves off center and begins to fall, his brain integrates the sensations of falling and forms an adaptive response. In this case, the adaptive response involves shifting the weight of the body to keep it balanced over the bicycle. If this adaptive response is not made, or is made too slowly, the child falls off the bicycle. If he repeatedly cannot make the adaptive response because he does not get good, precise information from his body and gravity senses, he may avoid riding a bicycle.
Additional adaptive responses are needed to steer the bicycle so that it goes where the child wants it to go. To know where he and the bicycle are in relation to a tree, his brain must integrate visual sensations with body sensations and the pull of gravity. Then it must use those sensations to plan a path around the tree. The faster the bicycle goes, the greater the sensory stimulation and the more accurate
the adaptive responses must be. If the child rides into a tree, it means that his brain did not integrate the sensations, or it did not do so quickly enough. When a child gets off his bicycle after a successful ride, his brain knows more about gravity and the space around his body and how his body moves, and so riding a bicycle becomes easier each time. This is how sensory integration develops.
THE INNER DRIVE
Within every child, there is a great inner drive to develop sensory integration. We do not have to tell him to crawl or stand up or climb; nature directs the child from within. Watch how a child searches his environment for opportunities to develop and how he tries over and over again until he succeeds. Without this inner drive toward sensory integration, none of us could have developed. Because the inner drive is so great, we take most aspects of sensory motor development for granted. Nature takes care of them automatically.
In the sequence of development, the child uses each activity to develop “building blocks” that become the basis for more complex and more mature developments. He is constantly putting his functions together to form more organized functions. He practices an activity over and over to master each sensory and motor element. Sometimes he backs up and practices an earlier developmental step before going on to something new. It is easy to see the building blocks that lead to walking: holding the head upright must come before sitting, and creeping on all fours before walking on two legs. Although it is much harder to see, the senses also develop in sequences of building blocks. First the child develops the senses that tell him about his own body and its relationship to the gravitational field of the earth, and then these become the building blocks that help him to develop the senses of sight and sound, which tell him about things that are distant from his body. The visual perception involved in reading is the end product of many building blocks that form during the sensory-motor activities of infancy and early childhood. The same is true for all academic abilities and also for behavior and emotional growth; everything rests upon a sensory-motor foundation.