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Special Needs: Sensory Integration Disorder

Sally Castle

Sensory Integration Disorder

Tommy is a third-grader who's challenged by sensory experiences that most of us don't even notice or think about. A tag on the back of his shirt feels like a dagger, and mint toothpaste tastes like fire. The movement of his body through space (just walking) creates a heightened state of restlessness or agitation. The noise from a pencil sharpener sounds like a locomotive in his ear. This is Tommy, and he has sensory integration disorder.

What is sensory integration disorder?

Sensory integration is the processes involved in the brain that organize sensations from the body and environment to make it possible to use the body effectively or adaptively within the environment. In addition to the five main body senses, there are two other strong senses -- movement/balance (vestibular) and joint/muscle (proprioception). Vestibular sense provides information about where the head and body are in space and in relation to the earth's surface. Proprioception sense provides information about where body parts are and what they're doing. These two strong senses are involved with sensory integration along with our sense of organizing the two hemispheres of the brain, motor planning (praxis), and fine motor coordination.

With sensory integration disorder, the brain isn't able to process all the sensory information effectively and results in sensory overload. Some experts say this disorder affects 12 to 20 percent of children at some level.

What are practical ways to minister to kids with sensory integration disorder?

• Try to control the overly stimulating sensory inputs in your classroom such as loud music, extremely bright pictures, and highly excitable activities.

• Maintain good eye contact with the child.

• Monitor the child's frustration level.

• Encourage the child as much as possible.

• Develop a signal for the child to let you know "I need help."

• Mask distracting noises in the classroom with neutral, nondisturbing sounds or music.

• Some children are calmed by using sensory inputs in their mouths or hands, such as water bottles, chewing gum, or squeezies such as a soft rubber ball or a sponge piece.

• Suggest a simple activity such as bouncing a ball or marching to help get a child's brain organized for classroom activities.

• Approach the child from the front to give a visual cue that you're there.

• Place the child's work area out of traffic toward the periphery of the room so the child has a good view of who's moving where.

• Seat the child next to a quiet child during a group activity.

• Put the child in the back of a line for good viewing of the group.

• Give the child a corner of the classroom with a bean bag to retreat to if there's too much stimulation.

Helping Kids Heal

When Pete's Dad Got Sick, Sometimes I'm Afraid, Sarah's Grandma Goes to Heaven, and With My Mom, With My Dad are the first four books in this series to help parents and caregivers minister to children through stories. Each book also has expert insights at the end for adults. $9.99, Zonderkidz, 800-727-3480;

[Q]: Do some parents use a child with special needs as an excuse not to come to church, or are they worried we won't be able to handle their child?

[A]: Yes, it's a common worry for all parents­-whether their child can be handled­-but it can be exaggerated with parents of children with special needs. Voluntee­rs who feel called to help these children can do amazing things one-to-one with a child. And parents need to know that you've fully trained your staff and provided buddies for their children.

Parents don't use their child's special need as an excuse. They want to go to church, but sometimes it's just another area that's difficult to deal with. Seek to understand what they struggle with-not by their choice, but by problems associated with their child's special needs. Continue to reach out to them with encouragement, love, and offered support.

Sally Castle is associate professor of special education at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.

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