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Sensory integration is the process where the brain takes in information from the environment and processes it. This results in the ability to respond in the right way to a sensory stimulus. Sensory integration difficulties are frequently seen in children with autism, learning disabilities etc. But, very often we also see sensory integration difficulties in children with developmental disabilities.
Every infant is born with immature sensory systems. As he or she explores the environment and experiences different sensations, the sensory system develops. If the child has a disability which prevents him from exploring and experiencing the environment, the development of the sensory integration system will also be delayed.
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Physical Disabilities and Sensory Integration Dysfunction
Children born with physical disabilities have a delay in their SI development. A child, who is not able to sit at 6 months of age, does not get the amount of visual stimulation another 6 month old child would. As the child develops further, the vestibular and proprioceptive systems (movement and position sensations) develop. However, if a child does not learn to sit up, crawl and walk, these systems do not develop normally. Normal development of these systems is essential for normal cognitive development. A child with poor hand functions may not touch and explore the environment the way other children do, and this results in a delay in the development of the tactile sensory systems.In addition, the ability of the child to take information through all these systems and process them is very important for overall development. In a lot of cases, children with physical disabilities tend to spend a lot of time indoors, and most of their time lying on a bed or sitting in a particular place. This is another reason for delayed sensory development.
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Visual Impairment and Sensory Integration Dysfunction
Visual impairment affects many aspects of sensory integration development. A child with visual impairment feels unsafe to explore and touch the environment. They tend to stay inside the house, and within familiar boundaries. They are not comfortable to climb, stand on their head or do cartwheels, like other children. They may be very fearful to sit on a swing or any unstable surface. Again, this will interfere with development of vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems. Similarly, a child with visual impairment is hesitant to touch and explore things. A child with normal vision sees objects at a distance and goes and picks it up, touches it, explores it. A child with visual impairment misses out on this whole experience. He will only touch the things that are near him, or given to him. A child with visual impairment is also not able to understand what causes different sounds as well as well as other children do. Unless taught, they will find it difficult to identify where smells and tastes are coming from.
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Introducing Sensory Experiences
Those are just examples of how developmental disabilities can cause sensory integration dysfunction. This is why it is so essential to bring sensory experiences to a child with developmental disabilities. By ignoring this aspect, we can increase the amount of disability. On the contrary, research has shown that early sensory stimulation has a important role to play in minimizing developmental disabilities.
We can bring sensory experiences to a child by making an extra effort to help him experience things that other children would. We can help children touch, feel, and taste different things which we come across in our daily environment. For children with physical disabilities we can help them experience different movements and positions with the help of balance boards, swings, swiss balls etc. All this is also called sensory integration therapy.
In addition, children benefit from good positioning and modified aids that help them to explore the environment.
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Bring the World to the Child
Sensory integration therapy for developmental disabilities is usually done by trained therapists. However you as a parent or teacher, also have an important role to play. This child cannot go to the world and explore it on his own. What you can do is to bring the world to the child. No matter how severe the disability, sensory experiences will help the child to develop and progress in more ways than you can imagine.