Sensory Integration is a term that describes how we organize and fully process the information gathered from our senses. The study of sensory integration describes how the brain functions to instantly and automatically interpret where we are, what we see, what we feel, and what we hear in a meaningful framework. Efficient and accurate processing of sensory inputs is a key element of cognitive development and enables us to interpret abstract concepts. We assign meaning and extract value from contextual information of all kinds due to sensory integration and predictably, which is also how we learn what those meanings and values are, enabling the most basic cognitive concepts. Without well-functioning sensory processing abilities, the brain receives sensory signals that don’t get organized (integrated) into appropriate responses; which in turn leads to all sorts of challenges…including learning challenges.
But, why is it not possible for us to understand cognition by only evaluating one sense as it is necessary at the moment; why should they all need to work automatically and in unison at all times? To explain, let’s step out of the abstraction of developmental and neurological theory and into analogy.
Imagine, if you will, being present as a symphony prepares to play one of your favorite overtures. Your senses come alive; your vision tells you that they are getting ready to play as you see the woodwinds bring their instruments to their lips and your auditory senses tell you they have begun by the blast of sound that emerges on the first note. However, there is a problem—something is not quite right. Instead of hearing all of the instruments in full concert with one another, you can only hear the violins. The sounds of the other members of the orchestra are not allowed to reach your ears. Thus, what you are experiencing is much more like a solo than a symphony. Without the support of the other instruments, what you hear is only the supplemental backdrop to a much grander tune.
Let’s take this analogy one step further. What if someone told you that the reason why you could only hear one instrument out of an entire symphony was because you simply couldn’t appreciate music—that you were incapable of knowing how to properly listen so that you could experience the full range of sounds? Chances are, this would bother you—you would instinctively know that the reason was not so simple or base. If this strikes you as an unfair thing to say, rest assured, it is. For those who lack full sensory integration and suffer from learning disabilities based on this deficit such as dyslexia, for instance, the problem has nothing to do with the subject matter to be learned (letters, words, sounds)—but is much more a matter of overcoming neurological barriers that keep sensory processes operating in isolation (i.e.- with poor levels of integration).
For anyone to fully hear the concert of sounds during a symphony or, for that matter, to adequately process the visual information of text into auditory, written, and other symbolic information, a well-calibrated set of sensory integration skills is necessary. If it is not present learning difficulties can occur simply because this relatively simple cognitive processing ability is lacking. However, it is possible for those with sensory integration problems to spark a new phase in their learning development. With proper training that orients sensory functions to the unchanging reference point of gravity, sensory integration and cognitive deficits can be overcome so that the full symphony can be heard in all its intended depth.