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Neuroplasticity and the Importance of Sensory Integration

June 29, 2021

From my sensational family to yours…

Neuroplasticity and the Importance of Sensory Integration

What does a parent who wants his/her child to follow directions, pay attention, and perform well at school have in common with a teacher who wants his/her student to keep his/her body in his/her own space, do his/her work in a timely, neat manner, and stop disrupting the entire classroom? What if we add a professional who wants his/her client to improve executive functioning skills, engage in higher-order thinking, and increase self-control? The answer: they must all target the senses.

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The basis of all neurological functioning is sensory integration

As babies, our newborn reflexes resolve through having our primal needs met; we learn everything about this world through our senses and that helps us begin developing. We continue to grow and explore by mouthing everything, crawling, pulling up, and walking, all while life marches forward. When our sensory systems are integrated well, we move on to focus on gross motor movement (trunk control, walking, running, climbing, jumping, and more) before finally mastering fine motor (zipping, buttoning, and writing).

Our physical capabilities have exploded and, as we start school, our brains are now free to grow mentally and emotionally, learning academics and gaining social intelligence needed for healthy relationships. Before we realize it, we have graduated high school—a few of us with extraordinary capabilities geared for sports stardom or fine arts prodigies and the rest of us become mature, responsible, productive members of our community. Where did it all start? Sensory integration!

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Motor and advanced cognitive functioning are built upon a well-integrated sensory system

Children with nervous system dysfunctions such as autism, Asperger’s, sensory processing disorder (SPD), attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADD/ADHD), and learning disabilities can improve their motor control and cognitive functioning when the sensory system is targeted. Brain plasticity means the overall nervous system is malleable (can be changed and improved), and science has proven neuroplasticity lasts throughout our lifetime. Even the elderly can do things on the sensory level to improve their brain/body function at the high-end level.

Early intervention is preferable because professionals can help one’s nervous system develop while it is still forming, but even if your child is a teenager, adult, or has multiple diagnoses where nervous system functioning is only a small part, sensory integration can yield positive results across the board. Every little improvement will help improve overall quality of life, and for many of us, helping our children reach their individual potentials is our utmost goal.

Occupational therapy is the number one way to learn all you need to know about integrating the sensory system.

So how do I integrate the senses?

Occupational therapists not only have the programs and tools to use in-office, but they can teach you how to follow through and implement the therapies at home. When therapist, parent, and child all work together, miracles in the form of little leaps and bounds in functioning can happen!

If you cannot see an occupational therapist yet, there are also a myriad of ideas and groups online and on social media to draw from as well. It may be as simple as playing outside more—such as climbing trees, mastering the monkey bars, jumping on a trampoline, and riding bikes—or more complex, like going back to basics and teaching an older child how to crawl (crawling resolves newborn reflexes that if left to persist into older stages can inhibit functioning at higher levels).

You can also do a lot for fine motor development in the hands by pulling and twisting Play-Doh or Thera-putty and practicing grasping motions like buttoning and zipping. The important thing to realize, however, is that parents can accidentally overstimulate a child if they do not fully understand what that child’s sensory needs and tolerances are. This brings us back to the importance of working with an occupational therapist at some point, as he/she can evaluate the child, formulate a plan, and get your family started. You can phase him/her out at a later step if needed.

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How do I know sensory integration is worth my time and effort?

My son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder at age three and received both biomedical intervention and occupational therapy. Our work was intense and difficult for about four years as we worked to heal the parts of his nervous system dysfunction we could and catch up the deficits in the persistent parts. Now at age 10 he is thriving mentally, emotionally, academically, and socially.

Does he still have challenges? Of course. We all do from time to time. The difference is that his are now manageable and do not interfere with him living life to the best of his ability. If I hadn’t happened upon occupational therapy and the professional who held such important keys, I never would have known about sensory integration and how it could unlock his potential.

Never give up on finding new ways to help your children grow, no matter their age or ability. Our success story is just one of many, and maybe one day yours will be, too.

This article was featured in Issue 109 –Attaining Good Health.

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