Making Sense of Sensory Systems

For a child who struggles with sensory integration, sometimes something as simple as a tag on a shirt, the feel of playdough, the noise at a playground or a certain food can overwhelm their system.

Sensory integration is how the brain processes and organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment, making it possible for the body to respond and negotiate within the environment. Sensory integration is necessary for almost every activity we perform because the combination of multiple sensory input is essential for us to comprehend our surroundings.

That’s where the sensory gym and specially-trained occupational therapists like Debbie Sheppard at Children’s Village can make a big difference in the lives of children and their families.

“Eighty percent of the kids I see each week have sensory integration problems,” Sheppard said. “Kids who are overwhelmed by their environment need help and practice to learn to use all their sensory systems so they can learn and play.”

What looks like every kid’s dream room filled with play mats, swings, ball pits, tunnels and slides is actually a carefully orchestrated therapy room designed to help children use all of their senses.

Sheppard, an occupational therapist with 30 years of experience, just completed a certification program in sensory integration. “The sensory gym is important because it gives kids a chance to practice challenging their sensory systems and creating an adaptive response,” she said. “When we try new things, our brains create new pathways.”

Eight-year-old Kristopher Barnett looks forward to the sensory gym all week. During each session, he plans the activities he wants to do, writing them down carefully on a white board. Together with the therapist, Kristopher swings on swings, jumps into the ball pit, climbs a rope ladder and practices throwing bean bags at a target, all for the benefit of using his body in new and different ways, challenging his brain to take in and process the information.

According to Kristopher, he’s just having fun. “He has a blast when he’s here,” Kristopher’s mom, Mary Barnett said. “I can tell that his coordination and balance are already improving after just a few sessions.”

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