A blog about sensory integration by Liani Austin

*Please visit SAISI’s website for further information on sensory integration.

Sensory integration. These two words have shown up on many parenting blogs the last couple of years, often in terms of Sensory Integration Disorder. But hang on, isn’t it supposed to be Sensory Processing Disorder? Or what about Ayres Sensory Integration? All so confusing, hey?

Well, to begin with. The commended terminology to use is in fact sensory integration of which Ayres Sensory Integration® (ASI) is a specialized treatment approach used by occupational therapists trained in ASI to treat said diagnosed sensory integration disorders. For occupational therapists to be able to present themselves as ASI trained therapists, they have to undergo rigorous post-graduate training to become qualified in evaluating sensory integration impairments using either the SIPT and / or EASI tests (and that can be supported by other relevant sensory integration tests such as the Sensory Processing Measure), as well as learning how to treat these difficulties using an ASI® approach.

But let’s keep it simple! What exactly is sensory integration? Sensory may give you a clue that it has something to do with, you guessed it, the senses! And integration? To coordinate. To unite. To blend into a unified whole. How beautifully said.

Now let’s link these two terms; sensory integration. Our senses are (obviously) part of our bodies. And within our bodies sit our nervous system – our brains, spinal column and nerves. Our senses are deglamorized, in fact. For the intricate superpowers that they hold, they are merely skimmed over at school “know your five senses” or if they’re lucky, they’ll be dissected a bit more closely in High School biology class. We all gradually learn about our five senses; touch, smell, taste, hearing and seeing. But there are in actual fact seven senses! It is therefore mind-blowing why our vestibular and proprioceptive senses do not reach the headlines more. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they wear “fancy” names. Fancy, and memorable, but oh-so-tricky to pronounce for the very first time, never mind letting the syllables roll over your tongue like a well-versed children’s rhyme. These two senses are blog-topics for another time, but in a nutshell; Our vestibular sense is situated within our inner ear and detects movement and gravity sensations. Our proprioceptive sense sends signals from our muscles and joints to help us determine where and how our body parts are positioned or moving in space.

We only learn the true value and extent of our senses, when they suddenly don’t do what they’re supposed to be doing. Think glasses and hearing aids. But sometimes we have perfectly functioning senses, yet problems creep in and cracks start to form. Whether it be the infant battling to roll over, the toddler struggling to catch a ball or the learner who, despite being described as “bright”, just cannot seem to master basic reading skills. These are only three of hundreds of possible scenarios. Each child, in their uniqueness, is wired with the DNA of their parents. So why is it that Johnny seems to have a natural sense for balls? But Luke can’t even hop on one leg, never mind catch a ball!  Or how come Susan climbs up the highest trees with skill and agility, but Anne sits with her feet firmly planted, watching in fear for her own sensory system has failed her. The short answer; sensory integration wiring.

Yes, genetics play a role, but this is not the “be all” and “end all” of sensory integration. Our environment, and sensory opportunities, can unlock or lock our developmental potential.

So what happens when sensory integration doesn’t work as it should? Let’s worry less about the why and focus more on the what. Picture “picture-perfect shops” filled with the best high-quality merchandise (senses), freshly built first world roads (nerves) and a jungle (brain). The shop’s products are carefully packed and loaded onto a truck which safely and efficiently transports it to the jungle.

There are two jungles though. That of Johnny and that of Luke. First Johnny’s jungle is entered. The perfect pitch melody of toucans fills the air, with a fresh breeze blowing gently on your skin. The colours are a magnitude of explosive neon-green plants with dew drops reflecting minute rainbows. The ground is smooth, yet firm with a natural pathway. You merrily skip along and deliver the parcel with joy in your heart.

Next up is Luke’s jungle. You fetch the parcel, carefully wrapped and boasting with deliciousness. The fancy truck proves for a smooth ride and before you know it you have arrived at Luke’s jungle. A buzz pierces your eardrums and you soon realize by the relentless itch all over your body, that the buzz is that of mosquitoes. A swarm. Sweat trickles down your back as a vine slaps you across your face, and you trip over a rock. Okay I think you get the picture.

Now ask me again why Luke battles to catch a ball? Or why he avoids sport in the first place? Or why he has a full-blown meltdown when you dare bring out the green bowl instead of the Superman bowl. Because, yes, actually it is not about the bowl. This child is struggling through a dense and uncomfortable  jungle. Every. Single. Day.

Luke has perfectly intact senses and a nervous system, yet the sensory signals are not delivered and integrated within his brain as they should. Information arrives, but cannot go where it should go. Sensory integration gone wrong. Sensory integration not integrating in the brain. Getting stuck. Feeling frustrated. Falling behind.

But there is hope. There is always hope! How? In the form of Ayres Sensory Integration® (ASI) therapy performed by an occupational therapist trained in ASI. To learn more or if you are concerned about your child, please contact your nearest occupational therapist for assistance. Have a look at SAISI’s website: