What is sensory integration?

Sensory integration is the process of attending to a sensation out in the world or inside your own body (e.g., loss of balance), perceiving it, integrating it with other sensations, and making the appropriate response.

  • The phone rings.
  • Your brain registers the sound and distinguishes it from the jingle on the radio.
  • You walk to your desk and pick up the phone without confusing it with the similarly shaped TV remote next to it.
  • New sensations register: the hard, smooth feel of the phone in your hand and against your ear, pushing down your hair; the high-pitched voice of your child’s teacher telling you he has a fever and to come pick him up.
  • Your brain quickly dismisses these irrelevant sensations, freeing you to focus on the task-at-hand and you respond automatically: “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
  • You press the correct button to turn off the phone and place it back on the desk.
  • You grab your purse and keys and proceed out the door.

Most negotiate this ordinary scenario automatically, effortlessly, accurately and efficiently. Others will experience a glitch in the reception, organization, and response to these seemingly simple sensori-motor tasks and negotiate the experience with effort, frustration, and disorganization. These people have sensory processing disorder (SPD).

What is sensory processing disorder (SPD)?

Sensory processing disorder refers to mild to moderate problems associated with sensory processing and motor coordination. It happens when a “traffic jam” occurs in the primitive brainstem, where sensory processing begins and this interfers with translating sensory input into meaningful thought and action. As a result, you are unable to focus in on and act on your world efficiently, purposefully and in an organized way.

Messages get scrambled, over- or under filtered and you feel confused by the input, or you feel starved for or flooded with sensory information, and what seems simple and automatic to the normal brain becomes perplexing, irritating, effortful or impossible.

Going back to the phone example.

  • Your brain may not register exactly where the ring of the phone is coming from and you run around in circles trying to find your cell phone.
  • You may walk to pick up the phone but have such poor body awareness that you knock over a chair in your path and miss the call.
  • You may pick up the phone and find the cold phone against your face so irritating or the squeaky voice of your child’s teacher so annoying that the words “Your child has a fever of 103” don’t immediately register and you foolishly blurt, “Is he sick?”
  • Frazzled, you press the wrong button to turn off the phone and then run around in circles looking for your keys. Read More

How does SPD Manifest?

SPD presents as a problem in three different areas:

Sensory Modulation Disorder-SMD: inability to turn up or turn down volume of sensory input interferes with focusing in on and responding appropriately to relevant sensation. SMD can exist independent of other sensory issues.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder-SDD: difficulty determining source, pitch, and frequency of sensation and distinguishing one sensation from another makes it hard to accurately discern sensory information. SDD generally co-exists with motor & modulation problems.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder-SBMD: difficulty navigating through space makes you clumsy, uncoordinated and often gravitationally insecure (over-responding to position changes). SBMD generally co-exists with discrimination & modulation problems.

What is sensory defensiveness?

A subtype of sensory modulation disorder, sensory defensiveness is hypersensitivity to sensation that results from aversive or defensive reactions to what most people consider non-irritating stimuli. Sufferers may react to light touch, noise, bright lights, movement, or smell with irritation, alarm and even pain. For instance, you might interpret a light sudden stroke on the shoulder as an attack and become anxious, hostile, or aggressive and spontaneously flinch, withdraw or lash out.

SD creates the most mental health issues for adults including tension, anxiety, avoidance, stress, anger, panic, and even violence. Read More

What causes SPD?

SPD can come from any condition that affects the integrity of the central nervous system. These include:

  • Genetics: SPD appears to have a genetic component as other family members often show sensory processing problems.
  • Trauma: SPD often appears in response to ?Prenatal insult from drugs, illness, and maternal stress ?Birth complications, such as asphyxia, post-birth trauma, or prematurity ?Head trauma ?Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse ?Chemical abuse ?Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Allergies: Virtually all people with sensory processing problems appear to suffer allergies and food sensitivities, linking the two. Read more
  • Toxins: Exposure to environmental toxins, such as air contaminants, destructive viruses, and other chemicals often cause oversensitivity. Read more

Can sensory processing disorder be cured?

At this point there is no known cure for SPD. Symptoms of sensory processing disorder can be relieved and managed through sensorimotor activities that feed the primitive brain – see Uptight & Off Center and, importantly, by discovering and treating the underlying cause(s). For more information on conditions that affect the central nervous system and their treatments see Anxiety: Hidden Causes.

DISCLAIMER: We are not medical doctors, or any other licensed health professional. The advice found here is solely the advice of people who are knowledgeable about SPD. Please consult a doctor, OT, or other health care provider who works with you specifically, especially if your matter is an emergency.