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Sensory Integration

This term has recently been used to describe children with a specific set of psychological traits. They are usually highly intelligent or rather hyperperceptive. Their intelligence focuses on specific topics, such as numbers. For example, as early as four years of age they might know every different kind of truck that exists. While their factual retention is excellent, they are a little detached from their environment, and they barely interact with other children. In addition, these kids have a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli; for example, they cover their ears when they hear loud noises, and their difficulty handling frustration shows up as loud and frequent tantrums. Finally, physical symptoms may include clumsiness, impaired fine motor coordination, and higher muscle tone, which can result in toe walking.

Sensory integration becomes evident in preschool, when such children don’t play well with other children or wander around while the others are sitting in a circle. This desire for isolation could be due to hyperperception; a very sensitive child may not be willing to go through the hassle of sharing a toy. At the extreme end of the spectrum of sensory integration lies a rare condition called Asperger syndrome, in which a child shows high intelligence in specific areas and develops language but lacks social skills in a way that resembles autism [See: Autism].

To date, sensory integration has not been rigorously studied, and as a result it’s often a catchall term to describe kids who are a little different. Occupational therapists have provided the primary description of this syndrome through anecdotal observations, since these kids are frequently referred for treatment in an attempt to introduce and reinforce fine and gross motor skills.

If you suspect your child has some of the features of sensory integration, be prudent about labeling and intervening. Most interventions have not been studied thoroughly and can be quite costly. I suggest that you foster social skills in one-on-one interactions rather than in a large group of kids. Enforce boundaries and promote his acquisition of frustration-management skills. Spend the time to answer all his questions patiently, and encourage physical activity, although not necessarily team sports. In my opinion, these children who are slightly unusual follow a different path, but they mature and grow into balanced, intelligent individuals with appropriate social skills.