Sensory Integration: 4 Levels of Sensory Integration that Prevent “Traffic Jams” in the Brain for Higher Learning
This article provides helpful information for sensory integration. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Picture yourself on a road trip. As your driving through some of the long stretches of your journey, you suddenly see a procession of headlights barely moving ahead that converge into three open lanes of traffic. The cars inch along all the way up to a bridge a few miles ahead. It is a gridlock. Since no one is moving, drivers begin to turn off their car engines and wander to the shoulders of the freeway to see the cause of the traffic jam ahead. Sirens start to blare and then you see fire trucks, police cars and ambulances making their way toward the bridge. You hear sounds of a helicopter overhead and see it land about a mile ahead of the gridlock. That’s when you realize you are in for a long wait.
This specific situation recently happened during one of our road trips. Not very many drivers made it through the traffic jam that night except for emergency vehicles. Traffic jams can take place anywhere on our roads. It’s easy for drivers to make one simple mistake that could turn the highway into a giant parking lot.
The same can happen with your child’s brain. Dr. Jean Ayers, Occupational Therapist, first researched theories that showed how a child’s brain experiences a “traffic jam” when they lack sensory integration. In Sensory Integration and the Child, Ayers describes how mixed signals in the child’s brain can cause their senses to overreact to stimuli around them (bright light, loud sounds, rough textures), which evolves into sensory integration dysfunction.
To begin understanding sensory integration in your child and what happens when there is a breakdown of that process, we need to first understand how a child takes in information from their environment. To do that, let’s first break up the senses into two groups. The first group is called the far senses and the second group is called the near senses. Each group is responsible for the following:
- Far Senses: These senses include smell, taste, vision, hearing and basic touch. The far senses respond to external stimuli that come from outside our body.
- Near Senses: These senses include tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular. The near senses respond to what is happening in our own bodies.
You may have noticed that both touch and tactile are included in both groups. This is because of the special relationship the tactile system has between both your child’s external environment and their internal proprioception and vestibular systems.
When an infant starts out on their sensory integration journey, it begins with the major sensory systems. Remember, this process is very fluid. The child does not develop in leaps and bounds and then stalls in plateaus. Every piece develops together. As your child grows, you will see this process through small steps and milestone achievements. The functions of each sense can lead to the next integration phase.
To better understand the levels of your child’s sensory integration, here is what you may notice as your infant grows into a toddler and school-aged child.
The first requirement at this level is adequate stimulation of the baby’s senses (touch, holding, visual interest, new sounds, motion, sucking, and singing). All of these developmental actions provide stimulation to the infant and gives them a flow of impulses from the receptors to the brain. The infant must have bodily contact with their caretaker for the brain to interpret touch sensations correctly, which allows the infant to form their first emotional attachment.
The next level is reached when the near senses (your child’s vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems) start to come together and the baby begins to develop body awareness. Posture, balance and gravitational security start to appear. The process that allows the child to use both sides of the body symmetrically and smoothly is called bilateral integration, which comes during this phase as well. The near senses are the building blocks for emotional stability. As cognitive development occurs along with physical development, emotional development begins to progress for stability.
In addition, most adults can put on a shirt, or use silverware without thinking about it. For a young child, all of these movements must be thought out and calculated as the child “motor plans” these actions. Motor planning is the process that enables your child to adapt to a new or unfamiliar task. By observing and practicing, this action eventually becomes automatic, which is why adults do it without thinking. Correct motor planning only occurs when the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and the other core senses are functioning properly.
In The Out-Of-Sync Child, Carol Kranowitz describes this level of sensory integration as the time when your child’s ability to interact with the external world broadens. Kranowitz says, “As the child develops, so does cognitive understanding of the information that his senses take in. Sensory discrimination improves.” Each of the different senses develop and coordinate with each other in this phase. Hearing becomes more refined and the child can understand language when it is heard and can communicate through speech. Vision becomes more precise and the child can interpret visual information more accurately. Hand-eye coordination improves as the child begins to hold a crayon, draws, throws a ball, catches a ball, and pours a glass of milk. This level strengthens basic cognitive skills and motor skills that propel the child into a world of learning.
This is where the end products of a well working nervous system and proper sensory integration take the stage. When the senses, motor skills and cognitive progression have coordinated accurately, academic skills and complex motor skills start to shine. All of these abilities become increasingly sophisticated in this level. The kindergartner transitions from using their touch and tactile as learning tools, to using their eyes and ears as the primary “teachers.” Between the ages of five and seven, the child’s brain matures enough to start specializing in specific functions. This is a process that one part of the brain becomes more efficient at a particular activity or function. The child can start to ignore or suppress annoying or distracting sensory cues in the background like an itchy hat or a noisy clicking sound and concentrate on the current activity or experience happening in the classroom.
Sensory Integration Dysfunction
When these levels are not properly achieved, or one or more of the senses do not function properly, sensory integration dysfunction can occur.
Coordination between the senses, the nervous system and the brain, is imperative for the child to reach the final stage where academic learning takes place. When there is insufficient sensory integration the brain cannot process sensations accurately. There is neurological disorganization. Not only is the sensory intake inefficient, but the emotional, motor and language output is not appropriate as well. A child may be hypersensitive (too sensitive) to sensory information, or struggle with hyposensitivity (not sensitive enough).
Other children have problems with both areas at different times. Everyone struggles with sensory integration occasionally, however, when there is a constant battle with everyday stimuli, we start to see an emerging problem. One common occurrence with sensory integration dysfunction is the child has difficulty screening out unimportant elements in the environment. Like our traffic jam on the freeway, too many vehicles (information coming from the senses) tries to get through a narrow area of road. An accident (cognitive holdup, motor planning failure and emotional grounding issues) prevent these tasks from becoming automatic and block a majority of these lanes to the brain. As a result, interaction with your child’s basic environment can be stressful and can cause many emotional, social and cognitive disruptions.
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