What is Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing?

Sensory integration is the neurological process of organising the information we get from our bodies and the world around us for use in everyday life. This occurs in all of us, all day long without us being aware of it. One of the main tasks of our central nervous system is to process sensory input; our brain is primarily a sensory processing machine.

Our senses give us information from our body and the world around us. Sensory integration is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of this sensory information. This ‘integration’ or processing allows us to make sense of the world around us and function and flourish within it. It lays the foundations not only needed for academic learning, but also for social skills, our emotional wellbeing, motor skills – in fact everything we do as a human being.

Sensory integration is a theory and a therapy approach developed in the 1960s by Dr A. Jean Ayres, an American occupational therapist, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist. She explored the association between sensory processing and the problems children encounter in everyday life with learning, development, emotions, and behaviours.

What senses?

Our senses give us the information we need to function in the world. We are familiar with the five senses of touch, sight, taste, hearing, and smell which respond to information from outside our bodies. We also sense information that we are less familiar with from within our bodies about movement, body position, and from our internal organs (interoception). Jean Ayres highlighted the importance of three sensory systems that provide us with the sense of ourselves in the world:

The tactile sense processes information about touch and the receptors are in the skin and mouth. It has both protective and discovery functions. It lets us know when we touch something that is dangerous or threatening. It also allows us to find out and discover the world by providing us with information about the characteristics of what we are touching. The tactile sense is vital in making us feel safe in the world and being able to bond with others so that we can develop socially and emotionally.

The body position or proprioceptive sense is located in our muscles and joints. This sense provides us with information about where our body parts are in space and how they are moving. It is the proprioceptive sense that tells us where our hands are moving without looking at them. It provides us with a clear map of how our body is put together.

The movement or vestibular sense is located in our inner ear. It provides us with information about gravity, balance, and movement. It tells us whether we are moving, how fast and in what direction. It provides us with the sense of safety from knowing that our feet firmly placed on the ground.

Touch, movement, and body position are fundamental in providing us with a sense of ourselves in the world. The senses never work in isolation. Each sense works with the other senses to give us a picture of ourselves and the world around us.

What is the difference between sensory integration and sensory processing?

Sensory integration was the original terminology used by Jean Ayres.  Following her death, the alternative terminology ‘sensory processing’ started to be used by some scholars and researchers.  They felt this terminology was easier to understand, leading to the theory being more accepted and understood.  Others felt that different terminology would lead to misunderstanding.  We are in the position now where both terms are used interchangeably, and so the terms ‘sensory integration dysfunction’ and ‘sensory processing disorder’ are also used to describe those with these difficulties.

“I felt this course has ‘opened up’ my ‘mind/eyes’ about behaviours and how these may link to sensory processing problems.” 

Lesley, Class Teacher

Where can I find more information?

If you would like information on sensory integration assessment and therapy, it is important that you seek out a therapist with the appropriate post-graduate qualifications.

If you would like to find out more about sensory integration and processing disorder, then why not attend our introductory course.

“It gave a great overview of sensory processing disorder with enough detail to be able to make practical use of it. Definitely 3 days well spent!” 

Miriam, Senior Habilitation Specialist

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Definitely attend! Everyone should know about sensory integration and yours is by far the best course I have attended.

Becky, Specialist Teacher

I would highly recommend this course. It helps give an understanding as to why and what. It is hugely interesting and in depth, but Julia makes it easily accessible and is so very approachable and happy to answer all and any questions! It is a must for anyone and everyone I feel!

Kiah, Parent

"Practical and applicable for schools and for other practitioners" 

Lesley, Play Therapist