Published: Nov. 6, 2003
Updated: Apr. 13, 2010
Our senses are so much a part of our lives that they're woven into our everyday speech. We "see" someone's point, we stay "in touch" with friends, we "come to our senses" after periods of confusion. Our ability to interpret and react to the information provided by our senses begins in infancy, then develops throughout childhood. Known as sensory integration, it's a natural process -- but, in some children, not a smooth one.
Who are the children with sensory integration problems? They're kids like 21-month-old Jake, who is in constant motion and hates being bathed. Five-year-old Angie, who is so unaware of her body that she can't sit squarely in her kindergarten chair, sometimes falling right out of it. Eight-year-old Jennifer, who gets nauseated on playground equipment. Or six-year-old David, who can't bear to touch messy media such as clay, sand, glue, or paint.
If you suspect your child might have a sensory integration problem, a pediatric occupational therapist can help. Questionnaires, close observation, and other assessment tools are used to pinpoint a child's unique pattern of sensory difficulties.
Turning a child loose in a diagnostic "playground" of ramps, swings, and tunnels can help assess gross motor control. (Youngsters like Michael, who experience delays in processing information about their bodies’ position and weight, may spend more than half an hour in the playground before they become fully aware of their own movements.) There are also tests for fine motor control and skills like "muscle memory" -- the ability to duplicate a motion, essential in activities as different as writing and climbing steps.
Once a youngster's problems have been identified, says Duke pediatric occupational therapist Jodi Petry, "We design a sensory 'buffet' that includes the right type and amount of stimulation to help the child function optimally." This might include gently rubbing a child's arm with a soft brush to increase his or her comfort with touch, or minimizing wall décor for children who are visually hypersensitive.
Such simple-seeming interventions can go a long way to restoring tranquility to a household and helping an affected child develop more normally -- and happily.
"We've had so many parents say, 'You know my child!' when we start asking diagnostic questions," Petry says. "There's this flood of relief that they've finally found someone who can help identify and address their child's problems."