Sensory Integration Dysfunction: Just What Exactly Is It?

Imagine you’re a child, and the sweater your mother dressed you in feels like sandpaper chafing your skin. The sensation of the threads rubbing across your arms is so irritating, you can barely concentrate on anything else. You grunt and whine in frustration, trying to convey your feelings, but you can’t put them into words that make sense.

You throw a tantrum, and finally your mother removes your sweater. Then she casually turns on the dishwasher. The buzzing of the motor rings terribly loud in your ears. You run into the corner of the room, covering your head and moaning. All the other family members go about their business, unaffected. Your mother, confused as to what the problem is, tries to comfort you, but her hand touching your skin sends a shock through your system. You push her away.

Later, as you go outside to play, your brain doesn’t properly “predict” when the next step should come in contact with your foot, and you stumble and fall. Blood trickles down your leg, but you don’t even notice.

Get the picture? Life is incredibly frustrating for a child with Sensory Integration Dysfunction. It is sometimes referred to as Dysfunction in Sensory Integration, or DSI, and it means that the child’s brain does not properly process information provided by the senses.

We Have More Than Five Senses

We’ve been taught that there are five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. However, in reality there are several others, including these senses suggested by Dr. A. Jean Ayres, O.T.R., Ph.D.:

The tactile sense, which involves the sensations of our skin from head to toe, involving perceptions of hot and cold, and whether we are actively touching something or being actively touched by something else. It involves the recognition of shapes, textures, and sizes of objects in our environment. It helps us distinguish between threatening and non-threatening touch.

The vestibular sense, which provides information using the inner ear about balance and movement, and where our body “is” in space, for example, how the size of our body relates to the sizes of other objects.

The proprioceptive sense, which gives us information using the muscles and joints in our bodies about where our body parts are at any given time and how they “connect” with the objects they use.

Why Does DSI Happen?

When the brain “misreads” the information from these and our other senses, things go haywire. We find Sensory Integration Dysfunction (DSI) in children with ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, pervasive development disorder, and other conditions where brain chemistry or structure is atypical. However, we are still trying to uncover the precise cause.

Since children with DSI can’t “get over” the condition, they often develop coping strategies to help them feel safe. These strategies might include ritualized routines (because the unexpected event might trigger a frustrating sensory reaction), preferring small enclosed spaces where things are quiet and predictable, or over-focusing on the senses which feel pleasurable, like fiddling with strings or curling up in a ball.

What signs should I look for in my child if I am suspicious of DSI?

Here are a few examples of behaviors you might observe in a child with DSI. Your child could have many, or just a few of these:

  • Frequently misjudges the distances between objects.
  • Inappropriate reactions to things that would be ordinary to other children: overreacts to small things, and under-reacts to important things (her own injury, oblivious to traffic, etc.).
  • Prefers sameness and doesn’t often give new things a chance.
  • Can’t easily get motivated to do things, and once upset has difficulty calming down.
  • Fidgets, seems to be “in his own world” and can’t focus.
  • Has a bad sense of timing and rhythm.
  • Is generally clumsy, and may slouch and tire easily.
  • Flaps his hands or engages in peculiar body movements.
  • Is easily frustrated and emotional.
  • Responds slowly to instructions and may seem overwhelmed by them.
  • May have trouble waking or sleeping.
  • Has difficulty stopping one activity and starting another.
  • Is agitated by certain textures touching her skin, or certain clothing frustrates her.
  • May seem bothered by sounds, bright lights, crowds, or chaotic events.

What can be done?

Understanding your child’s specific sensitivity profile can help you to determine what teaching techniques will work best for your child. Gather information about what types of stimuli affect him in particular ways. This can be immensely helpful. See my blog, “What is your child’s sensitivity profile?” for tips. There are various kinds of therapies which have proven helpful. In future blogs I will address treatment strategies for DSI. For a fabulous book on this disorder, read Carol Stock Kranowitz’s book, The Out-of-Sync Child. Carol Kranowitz is a preschool teacher who developed an innovative program to help screen children for the disorder. She has also written, The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, which contains numerous activities to help integrate DSI kids to the confusing sensory information around them.