Why Sensory Integration Is Important for Your Neurodivergent Child’s Sleep

Sensory integration allows us to participate in everyday activities. Acting out our environment with all of our senses makes the world more real for us so we can operate more successfully in that world. By integrating all of the information we get from our senses, we are able to make sense of the world around us and move through and interact successfully in this world.

The senses are the pathways of information from the outside world into our brains. In order to navigate through the world, we need to gather together all the information we receive from our EIGHT senses and put it together in a way that makes sense.

If we don't use all of our Eight senses then our understanding of the world around us can limit us or even stop us from moving through and interacting with the world around us, which often leads to frustration or stress. This is why sensory integration is incredibly important for those who struggle with insomnia, panic attacks, and other sleep disorders.

And among these people who suffer from insomnia and sleep disorders, most of the time are neurodivergent individuals. Individuals with neurodivergence are more likely to feel overloaded by high sensory input. People with autism or those on the autism spectrum might experience an overload when exposed to too many input stimuli.

If you ever wondered why sensory integration is significant for sleep, then read on to find out how it works.

What is Sensory Integration?

A mom playing wooden toys with her young son

Sensory integration is a term used to describe processes in the brain that allow us to take the information we receive from our 8 senses, organize it, and respond appropriately.

Here are our 8 Sensory Systems:

Tactile System

The tactile system refers to our sense of touch. Our bodies have many receptors all over the skin for different sensations, often perceived by touching. The tactile system allows us to detect physical sensations like pressure, texture, and temperature.

  1. Visual input (sight): Our eyes are the most important asset when it comes down to our sight. As we take in light rays, which create tiny pictures on the membrane of our eyes and send signals to our brain. These signals tell us what we are seeing.

  2. Gustatory input (taste): We sense food and drinks through taste cells, which inform us about the flavor, textural feel, and temperature of what we're eating and drinking. These taste cells are clustered in the mouth (throat), tongue, and palate. There are five different specific tastes that can be detected - salty, sweet, sour/acidic; bitter; umami (savory).

  3. Tactile input (touch): Our tactile system helps us to distinguish different sensations of pressure, texture, hot and cold, and pain. This includes telling the difference between a light touch and firm touch, and textures from dry to wet.

  4. Hearing input (auditory): We can get auditory input by way of our ears. They tell us if the sound is significant, how close it is (or was), and if we've heard it before.

  5. Olfactory input (smell): Our nose picks up information from the odors around us and, with help from an array of nerves, transmits it to our brain. Recent scientific research has shown that humans' sense of smell can be underestimated. It is closely linked to emotion and memory, therefore it can trigger unexpected trauma reactions.

Vestibular System

It is important to note that the vestibular system refers to the inner ear, which has two components: the labyrinth and semicircular canals. The right ear is connected to the right half of the vestibular system, while the left ear is connected to the left half. The cochlea in each inner ear helps with hearing and balance. There are four stages in a process that occurs when you move: eyes move, head move, muscles move, and neurons respond. It takes time for these signals to travel from one side of your body to another (from your brain), so you will not be able to react to your surroundings as quickly as if you did not have this delay. The vestibular system makes sense of the signals, giving you information about whether your body is moving, how it is moving, and in what direction.

Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system refers to skeletal muscles and joints, while the tactile system includes receptors in the skin. The first level of sensory integration occurs during fetal development when sensory receptors are able to detect movement within an organism's environment during fetal development. This allows a fetus to move toward or away from perceived threats in order to avoid injury.

Interoceptive input (internal):

The interoceptive system enables us to feel what's happening inside our body. We call it our “hidden sense”. This can influence how we feel and our sense of well-being. It can also determine changes in our internal state like hunger or fullness, thirst, body temperature, heart rates, breathing rates, social touch, muscle tension, itchiness, nausea, sleepiness, and more.

How does Sensory Integration work?

The goal of sensory integration is to provide a variety of sensory inputs to stimulate the nervous system and promote development. Sensory integration therapy can be used for people who have been diagnosed with autism, anxiety, ADHD, and other disorders.

Here’s a snippet of a video from Pathway.org explaining how sensory integration works:

Source: Pathways.org YouTube Video “Importance of Sensory Integration”

In order to understand why sensory integration is so important for sleep let's first look at what happens without it.

If you were born without one of your ‘eight”’ senses you'd probably have trouble with many everyday tasks such as reading or cooking because you wouldn't be able to complete the task nor function well. Without the senses, it's difficult to feel or know when you're touching something, or when there is pain versus pleasure. So, say if you are not able to feel pain, it will either prevent you from falling asleep or you will find difficulty staying asleep. Pain-related insomnia can get worse over time.

Consequently, such experience can lead to anxiety in children and adults because the brain won't be able to tell which situation is dangerous and which isn't. The whole family will be affected.

If someone has trouble with sensory integration such as vestibular disorder, they will find themselves feeling dizzy and feeling off-balance. Vertigo or tinnitus for example is some of the more common issues in our vestibular senses. Tinnitus can lead to insomnia because it affects the sleeper's ability to sleep. Loud tinnitus roughly tripled the risk in a survey of more than 14,000 Japanese ages 45 – 79 but it can be difficult for people with any level of tinnitus.

A swing, which is where a child or adult swings at the end of a bar, is the quickest and most effective way to calm your nervous system. Almost everyone has done it at some point in their life but for some children with a sensory processing disorder,