Sensory Integration

The links between sensory processing difficulties and coordination problems

What is sensory integration?

Sensory integration is a term that refers to the way the body uses information from the senses.   Our brain receives and processes sensory information so that we can do the things we need to do in our everyday life. There is a theory of sensory integration and a therapeutic approach based on the theory.

Sensory integration was initially developed in the late 60s and 70s by Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and psychologist with an understanding of neuroscience, working in the United States of America. Jean Ayres was interested in explaining how difficulties with receiving and processing sensory information from one’s body and environment could relate to difficulties or using one’s body to engage in everyday life.

The different parts of our body that receive sensory information from our environment (such as our skin, eyes and ears) send this information up to our brain. Our brain interprets the information it receives, compares it to other information coming in as well as to information stored in our memory and then the brain uses all of this information to help us respond to our environment.  Sensory integration is important in all the things that we need to do (such as getting dressed, eating, socialising, learning and working).

Jean Ayres developed a theory about what happens when sensory integration does not develop well, she developed a way of assessing these difficulties and a way of treating them. She carried out research to further develop and understand sensory integration and she treated many children with sensory integration difficulties. 

Child seated playing with toy SMART OT

The 8 Senses

  • vision
  • sound
  • taste
  • smell
  • touch
  • proprioception – muscles and joints have tiny sensory receptors that tell the brain where our body parts are. When you move you don’t need to look at what you are doing. It is largely your proprioceptive receptors giving you this information.
  • vestibular – in the inner ear there are small, fluid filled canals.  The fluid in the canals moves every time we move our head. Receptors in these canals pick up the direction of movement and send this information on to our brain. So we know if we are moving forwards, backwards, side to side, tilting our head, turning round or moving up and down.  The brain uses this information to plan movements, help us maintain our balance and coordinate the body. 
  • Interoception – is how our body tells the brain what is going on inside the body, when we are hungry or feel full, when our heart is beating fast or when we have that sensation of butterflies in the stomach.

The interaction between the senses

Jean Ayres was particularly interested in the interaction between and development of the vestibular, proprioception, touch, vision, and hearing. She saw these as important in supporting our ability to use our body, concentrate, develop self-esteem and confidence as well as having self-control and academic skills.  The link between poorly developed senses and these abilities continues to be evident in and in research and practice.

In conclusion

Sensory processing difficulties can be linked to coordination problems, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders.  It may lead to problems with behaviour, emotions, play and school activities.

Further reading

Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound, smell, taste and the pull of gravity.  Sensory Integration (SI) is the process of the brain organising and interpreting information.  It provides a crucial foundation for later, more complex learning and behaviour. Learn more about Sensory Integration here