Learning Differences: Sensory Integration Disorder

Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) is a neurological disorder causing difficulties with processing information from the five classic senses; vision, auditory, touch, olfaction (smell), and taste, the sense of movement (vestibular system) and the positional sense (proprioception).

People with this disorder receive sensory input normally, but that input is perceived abnormally, often resulting in distress or confusion. The Hypersensitive child might have an aversion (over-stimulation) to the slightest touch, while the Hyposensitive child might not cry when injured; he/she might even laugh.

What if…

  • you love to cook but the smell of some foods makes you (only you) sick to your stomach? For you, eating out is not an option, your diet is limited to certain textures.
  • it sounds like everyone is always “yelling” at you?
  • your clothes feel like they are teaming with itchy, crawly things?
  • you are thirsty, the water is in a paper cup; since you can never tell how hard to hold it, it always crushes. Fearing you’ll be embarrassed, you lie and say, “I’m not thirsty”?

Some Signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction
The person:

  • is over- or under-sensitive to touch, sounds, sights, movement, tastes, or smells.
  • experiences intense, out-of-proportion reactions to everyday experiences.
  • hates “messy” (food, sand, glue, paint, lotion), especially on hands or face.
  • Is bothered by certain clothing fabrics, seams, tags, waistbands, etc.
  • resists grooming activities, such as brushing teeth, hair washing, or nail cutting.
  • avoids touch—or needs it more than other children.
  • has an unusually high or low pain tolerance.
  • pushes, hits, bites, or bangs into other children, although he/she isn’t aggressive.
  • is overly-sensitive to noise, seems to hear things you don’t hear.
  • doesn’t seem to hear you, although you know he can hear.
  • avoids foods most children of same age enjoy.
  • frequently chews on clothing or hair.

Sensory Perception is a good thing, unless it over- or under-reactive to such a degree that it interferes with academic success, playground prowess, or friendships. Sometimes these inabilities are (accidentally) mistaken for “behavior problems.”

True Story

Ms. Pepper’s Experience:

“Robbie is a happy little boy in my three-year-old class. He is happy to come to class, has a best friend and his days are joyful. Except for Free Choice time. He starts to get worried and fidget right before it. Every day he runs to the art center easels; for 25 minutes he stares at an easel longingly but never touches the paint. When free choice time ends, Robbie sits down and softly sobs. Quiet tears stream down his little face. This happens every day. It makes me sad; I think he wants to paint, but he just won’t.

I asked her to tell me about the center. She said it was a “Regular Art Center, unscented paints, chunky brushes, donated Dad’s work shirt smocks. Mom says he paints at home.” “What does Robbie wear to school?” I asked “Jeans and T-Shirts, even in the winter time. “Short sleeves?” “Um? Yup.”

She realized the sleeves irritated him. Once she cut the sleeves off “Robbie’s Smock,” he began to paint EVERY DAY. Now the only problem is what to do with all Robbie’s “Happy Art?”!!?!

Sensory Integration Dysfunction is real, but not a life sentence. With awareness, minor modifications and sometimes pediatric occupational therapy, we can all look forward to happier, healthier children.


  • TACTILE (touch) Tactile Sense is the sense of touch, such as with texture, temperature and pressure. Where do these senses reside? All over—most nerves are in hands and on head, but people often forget their mouths!
  • VISUAL (see) Visual input can be pleasing, but too much can be over- stimulating (Hyper-visual), resulting in behavior issues, meltdowns or lack of focus. Hypo-visual children may “tune out” because they are not getting enough visual stimulation.
  • AUDITORY (hear) Sounds may be thought to be too loud or not heard at all. Sometimes all sounds come in at the same volume, so the child cannot filter out what he is supposed to be attentive to. Calming, organizing, even sleeping, can be difficult when there is too much auditory stimulation. May speak loudly even though their hearing is fine.
  • TASTE Taste input is strongly influenced by smell. Ever heard, “Hold your nose when taking bad-tasting medicine”? For the Hyposensitive, try stronger tastes, this may stimulate their taste buds best. For Hypersensitivity, go easy on the spices.
  • OLFACTORY (smell) If your child has sensory problems, certain odors can stimulate, calm, or send him into sensory overload.
  • VESTIBULAR (balance) The Vestibular Sense, located in the middle ear, processes motion and balance, is most prevalent when spinning and swinging, and to a lesser extent, with any type of movement.
  • PROPRIOCEPTION (body awareness) The Proprioceptive Sense processes sensory input from the movement of joints, muscles and connective tissues causing body awareness.

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