What is Sensory Integration?

According to the Journal of Occupational Therapy, sensory integration can be defined as, “the brain processes sensation and how it results in motor, behavior, emotion, and attention responses”. To save ourselves from the science jargon and terminology, this song does a phenomenal job of teaching children about our 5 senses. In short, sensory integration is when our brain takes in these 5 senses and processes them in a way that we can understand and interpret them. However, not everyone is able to use sensory integration in the same way others do. For those with sensory integration disorder, the brain becomes overwhelmed as it struggles to process the different senses our body is attempting to understand from the environment we are in. Let’s look at an example.

In this setting, we see a distractingly adorable baby fascinated by the candles irresistible cupcakes. What we don’t see is the incredible amounts of sensory information that is being processed in our birthday boy here. Here, the baby uses touch to explore the texture of his food, proprioception to bring the food to his mouth, smell and taste to identify different types of food, and the vestibular sense to sit upright during the dessert. However, a child with sensory integration disorder would become overwhelmed by the onslaught of sensory information that is being thrown at him. Rather than integrating each sense into one cohesive experience, the child experiences each sensation individually, thus overstimulated by the amount of information he must sort through.

For typically developing babies, this process of learning how to take in and sort through all this sensory information at the same time, focusing their attention on particular sensations while ignoring others soon becomes second nature. For someone with a developmental or sensory integration disorder, this lack of automatic sensory processing can make daily tasks at home or school frustrating.

So what should we do if we have a child or student with these challenges? Two words: Sensory breaks.

A sensory break is just a fancy word for just taking a regular break. Whether or not the child has sensory needs, it’s essential for them to gain the sensory input they need for their bodies to stay alert, on task, and focused. Every child is unique and a sensory break will look different for everyone. It ranges from being in a dark, quiet room to engaging in a physical activity.

What can you do? Get to know your child or students’ needs. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas for a sensory break. In the long run, this will only benefit them. Here are a few resources for you to learn more of what can help you and your student:

10 Calming Sensory Strategies for School

7 Sensory Breaks for Improving Attention this Summer

Sensory Integration at School: 21 Sensory Break Activities for Kids