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Definition of Sensory Integration

  • Published: 2009-01-13 (Revised/Updated 2014-04-14) : Author: April Merrilee, MA, OTR
  • Synopsis: The field of Sensory Integration exists as both a theory of neurological function and the process of the human body and mind.

Main Document

"Sensory Integration theory teaches that the ability of the vestibular system to modulate sensory input has a powerful impact on the development of functional skills."

Sensory Integration was first identified by Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an Occupational Therapist who noticed children struggling with functional tasks who did not fit into specific categories of disability commonly used in the 1960 - 1970'.

These children did not have clear cut diagnoses, but were obviously having difficulty with work behavior, self-care and recreational activities. She saw the challenges as neurologically based and developed the term "Sensory Integrative Dysfunction" to describe the problems faced by children whose brains do not consistently receive, process or respond to sensory input with adaptive, functional behaviors.

Traditionally, 3 types of sensory input comprise the cornerstone of the SI approach. These are the tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular systems.

Tactile is our sense of touch, and is especially regulated through sensitive areas such as the hands, feet and head.

Proprioception is an umbrella term for the sense of body position and is involved in body awareness in space, planning and coordinating movements, emotional security and confidence. Proprioceptive input is sent to the brain through receptors in the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. The vestibular system is comprised of sense receptors in the inner ear, as well as the fibers of Cranial Nerve VIII (Vestibulocochlear) connected to internal brain structures.

Sensory Integration theory teaches that the ability of the vestibular system to modulate sensory input has a powerful impact on the development of functional skills.

The vestibular system is related to the regulation of muscle tone, balance, motor control, postural stability, visual space perception, visual motor control, auditory language skills and attention.

Sensory Integration is also known as Sensory Motor Integration, a global understanding of how the human body and mind operate on a daily basis. We receive and process sensory input constantly, and respond by producing desirable "outcome" behaviors. For example: you are sitting near an open window reading as the sun goes down. It begins to get both cool and dark in the room, and your brain registers that visual and tactile/temperature information. The brain processing this information then attaches meaning: I can't see, I am cold. We then identify solutions: I need to close the window, turn on a light, get a sweater. The "adaptive response" is the actual standing up, walking over to the window, reaching up, pulling it down, locking it, etc.

In the big picture, Sensory Motor Integration is a continuous, fundamental constant of human life at all ages. Seeing the children we work with as whole and complete beings is a central aspect of the SMILY approach. Providing them with purposeful, multi-sensory based activities that are both fun and effective is the overall objective of the SMILY program. In this regard, SMILY is indeed a process of Sensory Motor Integration. The SMILY book includes more detailed about how yoga itself is an SI approach, including handy tables and lists that are easily accessible and understood.

Reference: I've been teaching yoga for 15 years and have completed 4 distinct teacher training courses: White Lotus Yoga with Tracey Rich and Ganga White; Integrative Yoga Therapy with Joseph LePage; Pure Yoga with Rod Stryker; and Yoga for the Special Child with Sonia Sumar.

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