Pause for a moment and think about what is happening to you. You are probably seated in a chair, looking at a screen. There may be music playing around you, multiple windows may be opened on your device, you may be texting on your phone at the same time and yet you are able to attend and understand what you are reading.
Without sensory integration, none of these multiple tasks that you are doing at the same time would be possible, Simply put, sensory integration is this ability to take in information from the world through our senses, quickly combine the information together with prior information, knowledge, emotions, memories that are stored in our bodies and make a meaningful response. And the majority of this delicate processing happens at an unconscious level. For example, you are not consciously aware of the tactile sensation of your clothes on your body, the surface of the chair, your relationship to the ground, and yet you are able to make the necessary postural adjustments to stay upright against gravity.
Sensory integration is a complex process that also involves other factors like the physical environment, prior experiences, the demand of particular tasks, and the personality of each individual. Imagine how different it would be trying to type out an important work email while walking through Grand Central Station trying to get to your train’s platform, while running late. The brain would have to filter out and process way more information than what it is doing now.
In most children, sensory integration develops as the child participates in daily activities. Babies and toddlers love sensory activities and this inner drive motivates the child to automatically seek out and explore their physical world. As children begin to develop a sense of mastery over their bodies and environment, they gain the confidence to conquer more difficult tasks. These early mind-body development lays complex neurological networks connecting physical coordination, attention, arousal levels, physiological functions, emotional regulation, memory and cognitive learning. Sensory integration thus becomes the base of the pyramid to build the other skills necessary for more complex learning, behaviors and academics. Without this firm foundation, children often struggle as more demands are piled on a shaky base. Like a house made of straw, it easily topples when the big bad wolf comes along.