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Help for Sensory Integration Disorder in Kids

SID can throw kids off balance but there is help available to get them back on track.
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WebMD Feature

As a baby, Gracie was terrified of swings, her father, Andrew Dod, recalls. In fact, Gracie feared all sorts of toys that swung, spun, or swirled. On those rare occasions when she mustered the courage to mount a toy or swing, she'd scream until rescued. As she grew, Gracie walked unsurely, often clutching for the security of something solid. "A curb was like a cliff," says her father now. As a toddler, Gracie hated sand. At the beach, she wouldn't walk in it no matter how much she wanted to reach the ocean.

With preschool came full-blown anxiety attacks. "Bad feelings" were how she described these sessions, which she tried to rid herself of by shaking her arms and stomping her feet.

SID May Accompany Other Disorders

Gracie is one of the growing numbers of children diagnosed with sensory integration disorder (SID), a concept developed in the 1970s by the late A. Jean Ayres, PhD, a psychologist and occupational therapist who researched the issue of sensory processing and motor planning problems in children with mental retardation, primarily. Ayres' work led to the development of a specialized theory, known as sensory integration, that guides some occupational and physical therapy treatment used with children who often have diagnoses such as autism, Asperger's, developmental coordination disorder, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and others, says Christine Achenbach, MED, OTR/L, BCP, fieldwork coordinator and instructor in the Occupational Therapy Department at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Penn. But children can also have sensory integration issues without other diagnoses, says Achenbach.

Some of the signs of sensory integration disorder, according to Sensory Integration International, include:

  • Extreme sensitivity (or underreaction) to touch, movement, sights, or sounds
  • Distractability
  • Social and/or emotional problems
  • Activity level that is unusually high or unusually low
  • Physical clumsiness or apparent carelessness
  • Impulsivity, or lack of self-control
  • Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
  • Inability to unwind or calm one's self
  • Delays in speech, language, or motor skills
  • Delays in academic achievement

If your child exhibits some of these symptoms, Achenbach advises that you consult your child's pediatrician and/or teachers who can arrange for an evaluation by an occupational or physical therapist trained in sensory integration disorder. The evaluation usually consists of both standardized testing and observations of responses to sensory stimulation, posture, balance, coordination, and eye movements.

For most of us, sensory integration occurs automatically. The brain registers sensory information, and then responds to that information with the appropriate response from the five senses, as well as from our sense of balance and forces of gravity, explains Achenbach ("I'm thirsty, so I'll get a glass of water," for example). Children with sensory integration disorder don't have the ability to make those connections, Achenbach says. They also may be exceptionally sensitive to external stimuli (or conversely, may appear to "shut down" when there is too much stimulation).

"We all have some sensitivities," says Achenbach, "but they typically do not preclude our participation in daily routine." Children with SID, however, who have heightened sensitivities, will live in fear, for example, that mom will unexpectedly turn on the vacuum cleaner, or that the doorbell will ring.

Some children with SID are on the other end of the spectrum, Achenbach adds, and appear not to register any sensory information. They may not respond when their name is called, might not recognize that a car is rushing toward them, may not respond to painful stimuli.

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