Sensory What-egration?: The 411 on Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing Dysfunction

The National Office of the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada (TSFC) received several questions about sensory integration dysfunction (SID), a common co-occurring condition with TS.

Just last week, a parent asked a National Office staff member if SID was a “real thing.” The National Office staff member assured her that it is real, however there is some debate in the medical community about whether it is a stand alone condition or a symptom of other conditions. The concerned parent asked where she could go for help with treatment and diagnosis. If you are in the same position and what to learn more, please read on.

Below are some FAQs on sensory integration and sensory processing dysfunction.

What is sensory integration?

Sensory integration is using senses to understand the world around us, or “the organization of sensation for use.” It refers specifically, to the ability of the brain to filter and process incoming information from all the body’s senses or sensory systems.

What are sensory systems?

Sensory systems include touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing as well as “vestibular” or movement, and “proprioceptive,” which refers to the info you gain through receptors in your joints and muscles.

What is sensory integration dysfunction?

Each of the body’s sensory systems work together to ensure that a person can successfully interact with, and make sense of, the world around them. A problem or disruption in this process is called sensory processing dysfunction.

What causes it?

The cause is not entirely clear. It may include genetic, hereditary, environmental factors, but the exact cause continues to be studied. So far, scientists have had some success in linking structural and chemical imbalances in the brain to the body’s uncharacteristic or disproportionate response to sensory stimuli.

What is the impact of having this condition?

It can affect a child’s gross and fine motor development, coordination, balance, and visual, perceptual and self-help skills. As a result, a child who has difficulty in these areas can have additional problems engaging in everyday activities. According to a 2011 study published by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, people with TS often find that their sensory processing challenges are equally or more disruptive than their motor tics. The study also notes that sensory sensitivity has a substantial negative impact on quality of life.

How is SID diagnosed?

This is a challenging clinical issue. Sensory processing disorder or dysfunction is included in several diagnostic manuals like the Diagnostic Manual for Infancy and Early Childhood of the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders as well as Zero to Three’s Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorder of Infancy and Early Childhood Revised. Some experts argue that it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. The committee that prepares this textbook has requested more studies about the condition. Studies to date have yet to demonstrate that sensory integration dysfunction exists as separate from other developmental disabilities. So currently, rather than be diagnosed as a disorder, it is treated as a symptom of another disorder.

What is a modulation disorder? Is it the same thing?

Yes. It is sometimes called a modulation disorder to reflect the fact that it involves the inability to regulate responses to sensory input.

Can you give an example what it is like to have sensory processing dysfunction?

Jordan is three years old. He does not like being near other children in preschool, he hides in the corner during circle time, he refuses to play with messy things like play dough and rice and beans in the counting centre. He is thin because he will only eat soft, mushy food and hates to touch any foods that are crunchy or chewy. Jordan has a hard time participating in age appropriate activities in his preschool class and exhibits delays in fine and gross motor skills as well as social skills. Jordan has sensory integration dysfunction.

What kind of treatment is available?

Sensory-based therapies, such as sensory integration therapy, are used by occupational therapists and sometimes by other therapists to treat children with sensory challenges. These therapies involve activities that are believed to organize the sensory system. It includes the use of brushes, swings, balls and other recreational equipment. Occupational therapy with the use of sensory-based therapies is one component of a comprehensive treatment plan.

What are some classroom strategies for helping a student with SID?

There are many types of sensory processing dysfunction, and as a result, there are many types of strategies. For example, some children have tactile system problems, meaning that their tactile system does not correctly interpret and understand what kind of touch is threatening or harmful and what kind of touch is playful or safe. Instead, they may have “tactile defensiveness.” They may scream and run away in response to being accidentally brushed on the arm by a classmate because they perceive the touch as painful or deeply uncomfortable. Alternatively, they may have “tactile hyposensitivity” and cannot get enough touch. As a result, they touch everyone and everything, and have an unusually high pain threshold among other symptoms. One strategy for teaching a child with this type of sensory dysfunction is to offer them less threatening tactile experiences like touching paper or cloth. Reducing expectations is also recommended. For example, rather than having them finger paint, perhaps they are only asked to stand near others finger painting, this may be all they can cope with.

What do I do if I think that either my child or I have sensory processing dysfunction?

Contact your family doctor, treating neurologist or paediatrician and discuss the challenges you are experiencing. You should not try to treat it yourself. Come up with a treatment plan with your doctor and obtain any necessary referrals to other specialists or professionals.

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