This is the story of Jenny, a 4-year old gorgeous girl. Jenny presents herself as a very articulate child, with a charming personality that is easy to capture attention when in a gathering. And although everyone seems to think of Jenny as a very pleasant child, her mother happens to describe her as a “difficult girl”. At home, jenny seems to throw temper tantrums for the simplest things. She always complains about clothes tags being too itchy, noises coming out of the computer fan being too loud, and describes bright lights as too painful. Further, Jenny is often described as a clumsy child. Her mother consulted with several paediatricians, but almost all of them suggested that it was either “bad behavior”, a phase that she will grow out of, or referred the symptoms to being the result of Jenny’s mother making a big deal out of everything.
While the above story is not a real-life case, it is a simulation of the life of at least 1 in 20 children living today. If you can relate to the above story, or if your child seems to be different from other children, but you are simply unable to pin point the exact area of difficulty, you might be able to find some answers in this article.
Dr. A. Jean Ayres first coined the term “Sensory Integration Dysfunction” to describe deficits in neurobiological functions which accompany learning disabilities. Dr. Ayres defined sensory integration as the “neurological process that organises sensations from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment” (Ayres, 1989). While the term was originally coined to describe certain challenges faced by children with learning disabilities, these challenges were later on observed to accompany other difficulties, or were even seen in children with no other diagnoses.
Occupational therapist and neuroscientist Dr. A. Jean Ayres, described sensory integration dysfunction as a neurological “traffic jam”. This traffic jam affects a child’s ability to properly register and interpret sensory information, thus causing difficulty responding to sensory input with proper adaptive responses. “Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.”- SPD foundation.
A child with sensory integration dysfunction might face difficulty discriminating sensory stimuli, or evaluating its intensity, hence his/her inability to producing a proper “typical” response to different sensory stimuli.
Sensory integration dysfunction could affect any of the seven sensory systems 1) vision (visual), 2) hearing (Auditory) 3) smell (olfactory), 4) taste (gustatory), 5) touch (tactile), 6) sense of body position and movement (proprioception) and 7) sense of gravity and motion of head in space (vestibular).
Examples of difficulties in the above mentioned systems could be seen in different presentations. Auditory difficulties may present as hardship finding directions of sounds, or demonstrated confusion in noisy places (Ayres, 1979). Inappropriate integration of input received by the vestibular system usually appears as fearful responses to movements, delays in mastering gravity (e.g.: delayed sitting and walking), as well as attention problems (WPS & USC, 2007)*1.
Although this disorder affects a high percentage of children, it is still not recognized as a diagnosis in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Accordingly, not all paediatricians know about it, and children often go misdiagnosed, or undiagnosed all together. If parents feel that something is wrong with their child, and that it is affecting their performance in daily life, or their ability to enjoy simple “happy” moments, paediatricians or family member’s assurance that the child will grow out of it should not stop them from seeking further answers. Locate an occupational therapist in your area with a background in sensory integration evaluation and treatment, and book a consultation visit.
Follow up articles will provide further information on diagnosing Sensory integration dysfunction, and providing proper intervention.
*1:Western Psychological Services and University of Southern Carolina (2007) The Sensory Integration Perspective, Curse 1 of the comprehensive pogram in sensory integration. United States of America. Los Angeles, California, Wilshire Boulevard. Western Psychological Services.