How Your Brain Builds Your World
Sensory Integration Disorder n., A disorder characterized by the inability to accurately process information coming to the brain from the senses, which results in inaccurate judgment of sensory information such as touch, sight, movement, taste, and sound.
When kids can't interpret the information that comes through their senses, when they can't find the right balance between over- and undersensitivity, when they can't combine the impressions created by their eyes and their ears and their joints and their sense of balance, those little things can loom terrifyingly large. Sensory integration disorder is a diagnosis that encompasses these sensory missteps; occupational therapy using a sensory integration approach seeks to bring problems back down to size.
All the things you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel start out as waves of light or sound, chemicals in your nose or on your tongue, or pressure against nerve endings in your skin. Those sensations are translated into electrical impulses that zip along neurons to your brain, which has the task of interpreting all that information and deciding what to do with it. Successful sensory integration involves the following:
Receiving the sensory information successfully
Interpreting the sensory information correctly
Combining information from different senses to create a complete picture
Deciding on a response based on information from all sources
Executing that response by sending electrical impulses back out to the muscles and limbs
If all this goes smoothly, you don't even notice it's happening. If it doesn't go so smoothly, as may be the case for your child, it's awfully hard to ignore. Sensory integration disorder is the brain's inability to use the information that comes through the senses in an organized and effective way. Your child may have trouble:
Receiving sensory information successfully if his brain needs a larger than normal amount of information before it reacts, or reacts too strongly to a small amount of information
Interpreting sensory information correctly if not enough information gets through, or so much information gets through that it is overwhelming and can't all be interpreted
Combining information from different senses if information from some of the senses isn't successfully received or correctly interpreted, or information from different senses can't be put together
Deciding on a response if he doesn't have a complete picture to base it on or if his brain hasn't developed and/or stored a plan for action
Executing that response if his brain doesn't know what his muscles and limbs are up to already
Sensory integration disorder is a relatively recent diagnosis, but the disorder isn't new. Think of kids you knew growing up who were easily spooked by touch or excessively rambunctious. Putting a label on the behavior doesn't stigmatize your child; the behavior stigmatizes your child, while the label gives her and others a way of understanding those odd fears and compulsions.
It may seem to you sometimes that your child is in another world. He may seem to occupy an alternate dimension, where some things are bigger and scarier than they really are, and other things don't register at all. In a way, that's just what's happening.
Your world and your child's world are different, built by your own unique brains out of building blocks provided by your senses. Those blocks may be as different as Legos and alphabet blocks. Yours clings tightly together in a pleasing predictable structure, while his rises precariously and topples at the slightest nudge.