Sensory integration difficulties are common: so why have over a third of the UK population never heard of them?

Sensory integration, or sensory processing, difficulties occur when the brain has trouble interpreting and reacting to incoming sensory information from the body and environment. Managing this sensory input is important in all the things that we need to do on a daily basis, such as getting dressed, eating, moving around, socialising, learning and working.

If the signals coming from our senses are too weak or too strong, or our brain can’t make sense of the signals or over or under reacts to the signals, this can be alarming and confusing to the individual. Some individuals may experience the sensory inputs as overwhelming and upsetting leading to ‘sensory overload’. Individuals may be over sensitive to sensory input, under sensitive, or both. Some individuals may have difficulty processing input from one particular sense (eg, visual processing), whereas other individuals may experience difficulty integrating inputs from multiple sensory systems.

Over a Third of the UK Population Has Not Heard of Sensory Integration or Processing Difficulties

It is estimated that between 5% and 16.5% of the general population1,2,3 have symptoms associated with sensory integration difficulties and these estimates are much higher for people with autism4,5 or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)6,7.

However, a new poll8, which asked over a thousand people representative of the UK adult population how much they had heard about “sensory integration” or “sensory processing difficulties”, found that over a third (36%) had never even heard the terms. Less than 10% of people said they had strong knowledge of the terms sensory integration or sensory processing.

Poor Awareness is Detrimental to Daily Lives and Mental Health

Sensory Integration Education, a not-for-profit organisation providing training in sensory integration (SI) therapy and SI topics, says these poor levels of awareness are detrimental to the daily lives and mental health of people with sensory integration difficulties.

“Think what this poor awareness of sensory integration means for people with sensory differences when they come into contact with employers, teachers, civil servants, customer service staff, etc, and their behaviours are not understood and their needs are not properly catered for. Research has already demonstrated a relationship between sensory integration difficulties and heightened anxiety and also depression9,10. Our schools, businesses, shops and leisure areas have not historically been set up to be accessible or welcoming to people with sensory integration difficulties. We hope that more organisations and authorities make the effort to consider how their environments and routines impact people with sensory integration difficulties and make changes accordingly,” said Rosalind Rogers, Chair of Sensory Integration Education.

“It’s one of the reasons that we make our annual conference on sensory integration and sensory processing free for all to access. Our theme this year is The Future is Sensory because we believe that the growing evidence base for SI difficulties and the impact of therapeutic interventions cannot be discounted by any organisation hoping to achieve equality of access,” said Rosalind.

Sensory integration difficulties often co-occur with other diagnoses including autism, ADHD, OCD, genetic syndromes and learning disabilities. In its recent report11, the National Autistic Society (NAS) stated: “Parents have told us that schools will often argue that their child’s behaviour is a choice, while as parents they recognise their child is overwhelmed by the social and sensory demands of school. […] “In school, social skills training, physical therapy, and sensory integration therapy all featured heavily in additional services which parents stated they would like to see. In theory, many of these services could be offered by schools. In reality, however, there does not seem to be enough staff qualified to deliver the specialist support.”

Sensory Integration Education is today launching its week-long free conference, The Future is Sensory, for practitioners, health and education professionals and parents and carers who want to learn more about developments in the understanding and therapeutic support of sensory integration and sensory processing difficulties. The free online event features leading researchers, clinicians and advocates. Find out more here.

Resources

The Future is Sensory: Sensory Integration Education Annual Conference. An online free event for all interested in sensory integration and sensory processing. Full speaker line up and booking information here.

You can find out more about sensory integration and sensory processing on the Sensory Integration Education website.

About Sensory Integration Education

Established in 1994, Sensory Integration Education is a not-for-profit organisation working with allied health professionals, education and health experts, academic researchers and families to improve awareness, understanding and the treatment of sensory integration and sensory processing difficulties. In conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University, SIE offers the world’s only MSc in Sensory Integration, training therapists to become Sensory Integration Practitioners and Advanced Practitioners. SIE also offers a suite of short online courses for parents, schools and other professionals.

References

(1)  Ben-Sasson A., Hen L., Fluss R., Cermak S. A., Engel-Yeger B., Gal E. A meta-analysis of sensory modulation symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2009;39(1):1–11. doi: 10.1007/s10803-008-0593-3.

(2) Ahn R. R., Miller L. J., Milberger S., McIntosh D. N. Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory processing disorders among kindergarten children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2004;58(3):287–293. doi: 10.5014/ajot.58.3.287.

(3) Jussila K., Junttila M., Kielinen M., Ebeling H., Joskitt L., Moilanen I., et al. Sensory abnormality and quantitative autism traits in children with and without autism spectrum disorder in an epidemiological population. Journal of  Autism and Developmental Disorders 2020; 50, 180–188. doi: 10.1007/s10803-019-04237-0

(4) Tomchek S. D., Dunn W. Sensory processing in children with and without autism: a comparative study using the short sensory profile. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2007;61(2):190–200. doi: 10.5014/ajot.61.2.190.

(5) McCormick, C., Hepburn, S., Young, G. S., & Rogers, S. J. Sensory symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorder, other developmental disorders and typical development: A longitudinal study. Autism, 2016: 20(5), 572-579. doi:10.1177/1362361315599755

(4) Green D, Chandler S, Charman T, Simonoff E, Baird G. Brief Report: DSM-5 Sensory Behaviours in Children With and Without an Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2016 Nov;46(11):3597-3606. doi: 10.1007/s10803-016-2881-7. PMID: 27475418.

(5) Gemma Pastor-Cerezuela, Maria-Inmaculada Fernández-Andrés, Pilar Sanz-Cervera, Diana Marín-Suelves, The impact of sensory processing on executive and cognitive functions in children with autism spectrum disorder in the school context, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 96, 2020, 103540, ISSN 0891-4222, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2019.103540

(6) Lane S. J., Reynolds S., Thacker L. Sensory over-responsivity and ADHD: Differentiating using electrodermal responses, cortisol, and anxiety. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. 2010;4(8) doi: 10.3389/fnint.2010.00008.

(7) Delgado-Lobete, L., Pertega-Diaz, S., Santos-Del-Riego, S., & Montes-Montes, R. (2020). Sensory processing patterns in developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Research in Developmental  Disabilities, 100, 103608. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2020.103608

(8) Sensory Integration Omnibus by Ipsos MORI, November 2021, Base: 1050 adults aged 16-75 in the UK; Question: ‘How much, if anything, have you heard about the terms “sensory integration” or “sensory processing difficulties”? If you don’t know much or have never heard of them, please say so.’

(9) Engel-Yeger, B., & Dunn, W., Exploring the Relationship between Affect and Sensory Processing Patterns in Adults. British Journal of Occupational Therapy,  2011; 74(10), 456-464. doi.org/10.4276/030802211X13182481841868

(10) Serafini, G., Gonda, X., Canepa, G., Pompili, M., Rihmer, Z., Amore, M., & Engel-Yeger, B. (2017). Extreme sensory processing patterns show a complex association with depression, and impulsivity, alexithymia, and hopelessness. Journal of Affective Disorders, 210, 249-257. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.12.019

(11) National Autistic Society School Report 2021