Sensory Integration


Information on this website should not be construed as medical or therapy advice and is provided only as general information. Please consult your physician and other health professionals for specific advice.

Sensory Defensiveness

Children with sensory integration difficulties
may be
defensive to visual, auditory, tactile, smell, taste or movement  stimuli. Therapists often use a great deal of tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation during therapy sessions to decrease the defensiveness. A child must develop a tolerance for touch in order to develop tactile discrimination and fine motor skills.


This can be done initially with deep pressure to the whole body and also to the hands by rubbing them with a wash cloth cloth and lotion. Bring  out a big tray of finger paint, whip cream, shaving cream or pudding to play in. Show the
child how to draw shapes in this messy stuff. This little girl is feeling inside a box of dry pasta, beads, pennies and other goodies to find a toy car. Exposing children to these types of tactile activities prepares them for more complex discrimination skills such as identifying an object by feel and playing an instrument or typing without looking at the fingers.

Some children with tactile defensiveness benefit from "The Wilbarger Protocol" . This involves frequent brushing of the skin with a special surgical brush. Many children benefit from wearing weighted blankets at night, a weighted vest, backpack, tight or layered clothing or a wet suit. 

Heavy Work Activities for the Older Child or Adult
Many people (including me) need intense sensory input all their lives. That's why skiing, skating, kayaking, bungy jumping, amusement parks, mountain climbing and many other recreational pursuits enjoy such popularity. Sensory input can also be incorporated into our daily lives and homes. I have a large therapy ball, tread mill and weights in the house and a trampoline outside for my family to enjoy. The following activities also provide great sensory input for school, home and work breaks:

  • Pushing a wheelbarrow
  • Washing the car
  • Washing the dog
  • Shoveling snow or sand
  • Carrying groceries
  • Mopping the floor
  • Vacuuming
  • Polishing furniture
  • gymnastics
  • Karate
  • Wrestling
  • Swimming
  • Stacking chairs
  • Kneading dough
  • Stapling paper
  • Punching holes
  • Tether ball
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Chin-ups
  • Carpentry
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Running with weights
  • Taking out trash
  • Using snow blower
  • Cycling
  • Painting the house
  • Skate and snow boarding
  • Dancing
  • Sailing
  • Rowing/ kayaking/paddling
  • Backpacking
  • Snow ball fights
  • Punching bags
  • Carrying children on shoulders
  • Pulling children on sleds or rugs
  • Pushing strollers
  • Yoga
  • Big hugs











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According to A Jean Ayres, the occupational therapist whose
work with neurologically impaired children and adults led to
the development of the sensory integration approach-

"Sensory integration is the organization of sensation
for use. Our senses give
  us information  about the
physical conditions of our body and the environment

around us. Sensations flow into the brain like streams
flowing into a lake.
Countless bits of sensory information
enter our brain at every moment, not
only from our eyes
and ears, but also from every place in our bodies. We
a special sense that detects the pull of gravity
and the movements of
our body in relations to the earth. "

(From Sensory Integration and the Child by A. Jean Ayres,
Western Psychological Services)

Almost from the very beginning of life, babies struggle against
gravity to hold their heads up, to reach out, roll over, sit up,
hold the head up while on all fours and eventually stand.
Caretakers can help children develop strength and muscle
tone by giving them opportunities to work against gravity.

This baby on his belly must control his eye
and neck muscles
while working against gravity.  Proprioceptive sensory receptors
  in his muscles and joints tell him where his body is
space and help him move.

Children with sensory integration difficulties may avoid being
the belly. Encourage this position by playing on the belly
over a  ball or bolster, crawling
through a tunnel and under
pillows or while on a scooter. There are lots of ways to play
in this position:
reaching for toys, swatting bubbles, tossing
bean bags, holding onto a
hoop while being pulled on the
scooter and swinging while on the tummy reaching for
daddy's hands.

This boy is going to push the ball with
a "batter" made  from two soda bottles.


divingChildren with low muscle tone (floppy like
a rag doll) especially benefit from being on
the belly and fast movement such as bouncing
on a ball. The ideal activities provide deep
tactile pressure, proprioceptive and vestibular
input. Diving off a board while wearing a wet
suit would provide tactile, proprioceptive and
vestibular stimulation at the same time.

playonrugA key word in the above paragraph is
"deep" because if the tactile is not a
good tight bear hug deep pressure,
the child may find find it quite unpleasant.
This child is receiving good tactile
pressure simply by playing on the rug with bare
arms. The weight of his body on supported arms provides
proprioceptive input that helps promote muscle tone.

Some of the best stimulation is provided by a suspended
inner tube. The
tube moves in a linear or rotary direction
vestibular stimulation), bounces
(proprioceptive stimulation),
the child's hands and feet rub across a carpet (tactile
stimulation) while the child reaches
for toys (visual stimulation).
Such multi-sensory stimulation can be very effective in
promoting an
optimal arousal level and function.

putty         rubberbandball           glue

Fine motor activities that offer "resistance" also provide
proprioceptive and tactile input. Resistive activities make
the child work. Offer crayons instead of markers. Have
your child color on paper over sand paper so that she has
to really press down hard. Squeezing glue and paint bottles,
pumping air into a balloon or tire, pulling long strips of Velcro
off the backing, stretching rubber bands to make a ball and
pulling pennies out of putty to push into a  tennis ball all
require good muscle work. Working vertically at a chalk or
white board instead of the table makes the arms work and
puts the wrist in a great position for grasping writing utensils.

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The Fussy Eater

Many children with sensory defensiveness are fussy eaters. 
They avoid  strong flavors and mushy sauces. These children
may hate to brush their teeth and a messybabyvisit to the dentist is
a nightmare for parents and dentist. Your child
might enjoy the deep pressure of the X-Ray
shield and a squeeze toy during such visits.
Crunchy foods, gum and sucking thick liquids
through a straw or water bottle all provide
deep pressure input to the mouth. Rub your
child's face with a terry cloth before meals and be happy if she
tolerates food on the face and makes a mess. Sensory stimulation
can also be provided with a toy whistle, harmonica, blowing
blowing a pin wheel, kazoo, bubbles and sucking on juicicles.
Some children enjoy vibration around the mouth but let the child
do this herself to guide how long she can tolerate it. Special
tubing and toys are sold for children who who crave sensory
input in the the mouth. Please visit the resource sections.

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Sensory Integration and Visual Difficulties

Vision requires both good eyesight (to read the small letters on the
Snellen chart) and good processing in the brain to make functional
use of the eyesight. Sensory integration and in particular vestibular
processing influences visual processing. The close connection
between the visual and vestibular system can be easily understood
when you get nauseous just by watching a movie of an airplane
zipping around the Grand Canyon.

midlineChildren who have dysfunction in sensory integration
may also
have difficulties perceiving where their
body is in space and
other spatial relationships such
as how numbers fill up a space
on graph paper and
letters sit on the writing line.
Some children do not
develop a hand preference, confuse right and left
avoid crossing an imaginary line going down
the center of the
body called the "midline". Such children
with weak sensory
integration and directionality skills may read
and write with
letter and word reversals. 

Common Reversals

  b   and                    g   and     p   
n   and     u        was   and   saw

  J       Y      Z       9     7

writingOccupation therapists provide activities to
promote sensory integration
which in turn
impacts paper and pencil skills. An example
would be
reaching with the right hand for a
bean bag placed on the left side
and then
reaching with the left hand for a bean bag placed on the
all done while swinging on the belly. The therapist
and child can use the words "right"
and "left" during this
activity to reinforce directionality concepts.
Children with
visual processing problems may also struggle with puzzles,
tying shoes,
playing ball, drawing, board games, finding an
object embedded in a busy background (figure-ground
discrimination), recognizing an object, shape or picture
when shown a portion (visual closure discrimination) and
judging distances between people and
objects and themselves.                      
Vision is so complicated, let's explore more!
Promoting Visual Skills

Barbara's Perceptual Games
Visual Perceptual Activities

©2008 Barbara Smith  

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