Sensory Integration

In the Occupational Therapy (OT) world, sensory integration is a very popular philosophy in addressing pediatric issues across many areas of function. Sensory integration is the therapeutic approach to resolve sensory imbalances, whether someone perceives too much or too little from the world around them, by providing opportunities for people to interact with sensory stimuli in a safe environment.

There is some controversy with sensory integration given that it is difficult to collect quantitative data on the evidence of its effectiveness, however this does not change its predominance in OT clinics. This discrepancy could be due to the fact that there is so much variation in the personal sensory issues that people face. I say people instead of children even though sensory integration is most often used with children, because it doesn’t negate the fact that many adults have a need to balance their sensory intake. Adults who are simply very sensitive or clumsy, or have experienced trauma, PTSD, anxiety, or any mental health challenges may benefit from integrating their senses more effectively.

The psychological nature of sensory integration challenges may contribute to the difficulty of quantifying the effectiveness of treatment. Sensory stimuli travels through the peripheral nervous system and sends information to the central nervous system where the brain will perceive the stimuli. This back and forth messaging between the external world and the brain is where the translation can get messy. This is also where a philosophical debate can occur about the question of reality, or “Is there a reality?” since everything is an interpreted personal and internal experience. In any case, there are some personal internal experiences that cause much discomfort and dysfunction.

So first let’s look at all the senses that sensory integration addresses. First off, most people know about the five senses of sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing, but there’s more!

One is proprioception. This is the silent and very important sense of knowing where your limbs and joints are in space. This is very important for not injuring yourself in any sort of movement, whether walking, biking or reaching for a hot cup of tea. Knowing your position can give you insight and body awareness to help you predict and calculate your next move. It also helps you know how hard to press down on things like when writing or drawing or giving someone a hug.

The other is the vestibular system. This is how you sense your movement in space, which means detecting how fast and in what direction your body is moving. You know that sick feeling of being in a car or on a boat or on a tire swing? Say thank you to your vestibular system. Some people feel that sick feeling just walking up the stairs. That dizzy, nauseous feeling can get out of hand. It also can make people fall. And some people crave that feeling and seek that input to really sense their own bodily movement, but can never get enough of it.

There is not one thing that you do that is not affected by your senses. Eating, sleeping, working, commuting, shopping, chores, socializing can all be compromised by poor sensory intake. Someone may be overwhelmed by loud sounds, strong smells, bright lights and others may be bored stiff because nothing is loud enough or strong enough for them. Some people feel destabilized by the lack of intake and feel anxious because nothing feels firm enough to keep them rooted in their bodies. This is why a “sensory diet” may be needed to reprogram the nervous system. Below you will see a list of activities that people can include in their sensory diet and what senses they address.

Some activities that may help with tactile (touch) integration are:

  • Rubbing on lotion
  • Playing in water or in the rain
  • Touching different foods while cooking like cookie dough, oatmeal, whip cream or Jello
  • Touching different fabrics or household objects like coins, beans, rice, feathers, silk ribbons, velvet or sand paper
  • Touching mud, rocks, fruits, vegetables or plants while gardening
  • Petting a dog or a cat or your household pet
  • Touching paint, glue, sequence, rubber eraser or clay when making an art project
  • Making sand castles at the beach
  • Popping bubble wrap or bubbles or ripping paper
  • Washing the car

Some activities that may help with smell integration are:

  • Scented markers
  • Scented lotions and soaps
  • Smelling different flowers and plants
  • Smelling different foods
  • Smelling different candles
  • Lighting incense
  • Smell guessing games with products and foods
  • Smelling fresh clean laundry
  • Making a habit of taking note of smells in the environment
  • Taking note what smells you like and what smells you don’t like and what they make you think and feel

Some activities that may help with auditory integration are:

  • Listening to music and distinguishing different parts of the song
  • Reading and listening to stories out loud and repeating back what you heard
  • Listening to sounds in your environment
  • Having a fountain in your home or listening to calm ambient music and nature sounds
  • Mimicking the sounds you hear or someone you know
  • Playing a musical instrument or drumming on objects
  • Listening to a Tibetan prayer bowl or a rain stick
  • Playing auditory memory games like repeating a phone number or a pattern
  • Playing games with verbal commands like Red Light Green Light or Marco Polo
  • Learning rhymes, poems and song verses

Some activities that may help with gustatory (taste) integration are:

  • Sucking hard candy and lollipops
  • Chewing gum and chewy food
  • Adding different spices to food
  • Distinguishing between bitter, sour, umami, sweet and salty tastes in food
  • Chewing Big Red chewing gum
  • Sucking on Warheads and sour candy
  • Drinking lemonade
  • Using mustard and other condiments
  • Chewing raw onion or garlic
  • Eating pickled foods

Some activities that may help with visual integration are:

  • Playing puzzles, spot the difference, hidden objects, I Spy, mazes and dot-to-dot games
  • Matching colors in a game or socks when doing laundry
  • Catching a balloon or beach ball
  • Following the light of a flashlight
  • Playing with shiny or glittery objects
  • Looking at glow-in-the-dark objects or night lights or fish tanks
  • Organizing coins into piles of quarters, nickels, pennies and dimes
  • Reading with a card covering the words below the line you are reading from
  • Using bright contrasting colors to see words or objects
  • Using bold and highlight on documents

Some activities that may help with vestibular integration are:

  • Swinging on a swing
  • Doing somersaults and cartwheels
  • Rolling down a hill
  • Dancing or playing freeze dance
  • Swimming
  • Going down slides
  • Bouncing on a gym ball, trampoline or jump house
  • Riding on a scooter, bike or wagon
  • Spinning on the playground
  • Sliding on a Slip’N Slide

Some activities that may help with proprioception integration are:

  • Getting a deep massage
  • Lifting weights or wearing weights or carrying heavy objects like a large load of laundry
  • Wearing heavy shoes or clothes
  • Walking on hands and knees or crawling or climbing walls, trees or playgrounds
  • Kitchen activities like scrubbing dirty dishes or stirring a bowl of viscous food
  • Riding on bikes or scooters
  • Opening jars and tightly sealed containers
  • Squeezing stress balls, Silly Putty or hard clay
  • Jumping on trampolines or bounce houses or while doing jump rope or jumping jacks
  • Moving in ball pits or sitting in bean bag chairs
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About Olive

A young occupational therapy practitioner who is aspiring to write children's books and design video games. She gains inspiration from life experience, knowledge about psychology, health, friendship, nostalgia and San Francisco. Her role models are the story and atmosphere of LittleBigPlanet, Knytt, Katamari and Zelda, the art direction of Michel Gondry, the writing style of The Book Thief, the pure imagination of Roald Dahl and Adventure Time, and the depth in simplicity and innocence of Miyazaki films and Calvin and Hobbes.
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