Dr Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and educational psychologist developed sensory integration theory, as well as the assessment procedures and treatment strategies in the 1950’s.
Sensory discrimination is the ability to correctly register (or recognise) and respond to sensory input appropriately.
Being able to accurately discriminate sensory information tells us about our body and the world around us.
For example, one needs to have adequate tactile discrimination to find car keys in one’s handbag without looking, or to know how tightly to hold onto a pen when handwriting.
Some children over-respond or under-respond to sensory input, which makes it difficult for them to engage in their environments appropriately. When a child either over responds, under responds, or fluctuates in response to sensory input in a manner that is disproportionate to the input they have received, the child has a sensory modulation disorder. Effective sensory modulation involves being able to screen out irrelevant sensory input, so that one does not become overloaded with information and feel distracted; and being able to notice the important stimuli so that one can be attentive to this information. In a classroom setting, effective sensory modulation will involve a child’s ability to focus on the teacher’s instruction, whilst screening out the sound of other children playing outside.
Occupational Therapists (OT’s) aim to understand a child’s behaviour so that they can facilitate appropriate behavioural responses.
The principle of Sensory Integrative theory relies on the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is the potential for the brain to change. Changes are made through increasing the connections along appropriate pathways in the brain. OT’s do this by encouraging children to explore their environments actively within optimal movement patterns, which gives them the feeling of what a movement should feel like, so that the brain can create and enhance the appropriate connections. Sensory integrative occupational therapy is child-directed, as the child is then intrinsically motivated to engage actively, which creates the most effective and long-lasting change. OT’s guide the child, making sure that the activity they are engaging in has the just right challenge, which facilitates adaptive, more appropriate responses.