Sensory Integration

Sensory Integration
As I was scrolling through volumes of articles related to Autism, I was drawn to a particular article, entitled, “Sensory Integration.”1 Over the course of the past school year, I encountered one student who was quite smart, kind, and loving. Still, this student was an enigma to the teachers at my school, and his parents for that matter. He was distracted and socially mal-adjusted. Sometimes he reacted badly when children were near to or touching him. Other times he had his hands all over other children. He was often to be found crawling around on the floor picking up tiny, embedded staples or flakes of glitter. At recess this student would build the teachers’ names out of sticks but in P.E. he was unable to match his classmates’ athleticism. It was through this gifted and insufferably troubled little boy that I had a crash course in Sensory Integration. To be frank, even the name is confusing because those children who are diagnosed with “Sensory Integration” seem to both be on sensory overload and also to seek stimulation. At least, that was the case with my first-grade friend.

Three Senses
The article that I refer to in this synopsis described three senses that are disturbed in a child or adult with Sensory Integration (which can be a symptom of or accompany Autism.) The first of these senses is tactile and accounts for many instances where children are loathe to be touched, hate to wash, wear textured clothes, or eat certain foods. Hypersensitivity to the tactile sense can be extremely distracting to a student. The second sense that is affected by Sensory Integration is the vestibular system. This is the system, located in the inner ear, that informs us as to where we are in space. Children who lack this sense can appear clumsy, awkward, and cautious. They can have troubles that range from learning how to walk up and down stairs to navigating on unstable surfaces. On the other extreme, some children actually seek to constantly stimulate this system in which case they may continually move, twirling and twisting in a dizzying manner. The third and final sense that is described in this article is the proprioceptive system. This system also helps us to function in space, allowing us to walk smoothly on uneven surfaces and sit down without falling. Students who experience trouble with this sense may also seem clumsy and they may have trouble with gross motor skills. Additionally, students who experience trouble with their proprioceptive system may experience difficulty mastering the muscle memory needed to write or perform other repetitive motor tasks.

What next?
Although I was interested to learn about the three major components of Sensory Integration, I was dismayed to find that the article that I read was merely descriptive and did not provide any suggestions as to how to navigate Sensory Integration problems in the classroom. What I found from my own experience was that flexibility was key to fostering a positive classroom experience for our Sensory Integration student. One day he would be engaged and patient, at which time the classroom teacher and I would draw him into conversation and make sure that he was as involved as possible. Other days, he would be “off” – off in terms of behavior and attention – literally off in his own world. In those cases we were careful to give him space when he needed it. Often times we allowed him to sit at a table near the carpet where most of our instructional time was spent. In this way he was off of the carpet that was such a source of distraction and away from other children so that his hands would not wander onto them. There were many other strategies that we developed over the course of the year that ranged from leading him to and from the bathroom (eventually we discovered that he could not go unattended because he liked to unroll the toilet paper) to creating a basket of extra work for him to occupy himself with when he finished ahead of the class. (This happened often and if left without something to engage in, our little scholar would spend his spare time on the floor picking at the rug.) The most important ritual that we developed with this student was actually a result of his own curiosity about himself. Every day he would ask either the lead teacher or myself if he had been a “good boy” that day. I found that in being honest with this student and explaining the behaviors that were productive and those that were disruptive, we were able to start a lasting dialogue with him. The more we were explicit with him about his actions, the larger our collection of concrete examples became. This, I found, was quite useful for times when we needed to discuss behavior before then end of the day. We developed a bank of information to draw from that our student was easily able to relate to simply because the examples were real-life situations to him. To this end, I feel that we were able to help our young student become more organized and self-aware in our classroom.

Wikipedian research contriubted by Rachel Fries