Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Sensory Integration

Factor Connections

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How Sensory Integration connects to...

We are constantly taking in information––particularly sights, smells, and sounds–– and our Sensory Integration skills help us make sense of it all. Sensory Integration involves the brain's ability to receive, process, and organize multiple sources of sensory information and transform that information into physical and emotional responses and Regulation that adhere to typical social norms. Sensory Integration difficulties can interfere with peer relationships, participating in classroom activities, and getting adequate Sleep, all of which can contribute to difficulties learning and staying engaged and focused in the classroom.

Main Ideas

Sensory discrimination supports the ability to identify aspects of the sensory input from our environment, including duration, intensity, and spatial. Adolescents with Sensory Integration and processing challenges can have discrimination difficulties in one or more sensory domains (e.g., tactile, auditory, visual, etc.).

Adolescents vary in how they process sensory input (neurological threshold) and their behavioral response (both action and reaction) which contribute to their sensory modulation. There are some basic patterns of Sensory Integration and modulation however children can have any combination or may react differently in different contexts:

  • Sensation seeking/hyposensitive (high threshold/active response) students may seek out higher levels of sensory input (e.g., requiring noise to be louder, needing more light);
  • Low Registration (high threshold/passive) students may miss teachers' instructions and may appear unmotivated or sluggish, appear more withdrawn, and have difficulty engaging in and maintaining friendships;
  • Sensation Avoiding/hypersensitive (low threshold/active) students may experience sensory overload, causing them to be overwhelmed, emotionally dysregulated,, withdraw from activities, or avoid touch;
  • Sensory sensitivity (low threshold/passive) students tend to feel overwhelmed by sensory information, but may not avoid it, rather will display emotional dysregulation. They may be easily distracted, and seem irritable, cautious, and uncomfortable in loud or bright environments.

In addition, some adolescents with Sensory Integration difficulties may experience sensory-motor based challenges in organizing vestibular (related to gravity and movement) and proprioceptive (related to the position of our muscles and joints) input, which may impact balance, body and spatial awareness, and motor planning. This can potentially contribute to challenges in completing multi-step directions related to physical tasks, engaging or initiating unstructured activities with peers, and may lead to low self-confidence or frustration.

Difficulties with Sensory Integration often, though not always, co-occur with developmental disorders, including ADHD and autism, which may be driven in part by differences in executive function. Efficient Sensory Integration frees up cognitive resources to support executive functions, and in turn efficient executive functions help modulate Sensory Integration making them closely intertwined. Unfortunately, because there aren't precise tools to assess and diagnose sensory issues apart from a neurodevelopmental disorder, Sensory Integration challenges are often under-recognized and under-treated, and can persist through adolescence and into adulthood. Because difficulties with Sensory Integration are tightly connected to cognitive, physical, and social-emotional well-being, students can best be supported through building self-advocacy and self-awareness skills and Self-Regulation strategies, in addition to individualized sensory supports.

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