Asynchronous Development and Sensory Integration Intervention in the Gifted and Talented Population

By Anne Cronin

Citation:  Reprinted with permission from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development

Parents of children who develop differently are under different pressures and have many difficult decisions to make. As the Internet makes information so accessible, families often find themselves in information overload when looking for resources for their child. Popular books like, The Out-of-Sync Child (Kranowitz, 1998) have informed families about sensory integration difficulties that might have never been referred to an occupational therapist. Families of children who are both highly gifted, and have some other exceptionality are increasingly looking toward sensory integration as a resource for their children. The special education literature abounds with documentation of the social and emotional consequences of having exceptional abilities and learning disabilities, when one or both of the conditions is unrecognized, can be pervasive and quite debilitating (Baum et al.,1991; Durden & Tangherlini, 1993).

These emotional and social consequences lead parents to search for new and different strategies to support their children. Many parents have asked me for additional information and resources discussing the use of sensory integration strategies, like those described by Kranowitz (1998), for gifted and twice exceptional children. There is no research or even case report information specifically addressing sensory integration and giftedness. For that reason this paper will provide and overview of sensory integration and current relevant literature, and discuss this in the context of existing literature about the characteristics of gifted children.

Sensory Integration is a theory of brain-behavior relationships originally proposed by A. Jean Ayres in the 1970’s (Bundy, Lane, and Murray, 2002). It has been an exciting idea and has led to much research and speculation in the past thirty years. Information and research about Sensory Integration Theory falls into three general categories:

1. Normal development and aspects of sensory integration in the typically developing child

2. Sensory integrative dysfunction

3. Sensory Integration interventions

In normal development, Sensory Integration theory explains why individuals behave in particular ways. Learning is believed to be “dependent on the ability to take in and process sensation from movement and environment and use it to plan and organize behavior” (Bundy, Lane, and Murray, 2002, p. 5). Because sensory integration cannot be directly observed, the theory has been dependent on research in neurobiology. Explanations of the neural basis for SI have changed dramatically from Ayres’ original speculations with increases in understanding of the nervous system. Ayres originally de-emphasized the role of cognition in development, hoping to tap underlying, subconscious neurobiological mechanisms. Current research demonstrates that the nervous system is more complex, and less of a hierarchy than once believed. This means that although there are subconscious neurobiological mechanisms, they cannot be isolated from thought and intention. I emphasize this point here, because parents seeking sensory integrative support for their gifted child should be sure that their therapist uses this more modern model. In my experience, gifted children do best when cognitively engaged.

The following diagram is adapted from (Bundy, Lane, and Murray, 2002, p. 7) to present an overview of Sensory Integration theory in the context of development.

In this conception, sensory integration, in typical development, supports the development of posture and fine discrimination of environmental demands based on sensory cues. Normally it also is reflected in an “inner drive” toward exploration, engagement, participation and confidence in interactions with both the human and non-human world.

Sensory Integration Dysfunction, then, is when a decreased ability to process sensation results in difficulty participating in daily functional contexts and interferes with learning and behavior. The research suggests that there are two general types of sensory integrative dysfunctions, dyspraxia and poor modulation. Dyspraxia relates to deficits in the behavioral expressions side of the diagram above. Children who are dyspraxic are often described as clumsy, and may have difficulties with handwriting. These are children who join teams and may “clown” rather than build skills, because the clowning draws attention from their deficits. The literature describes many of these problems common to populations of children with learning disabilities and attention deficits. Gifted children with these additional exceptionalities should, in theory, respond in a manner consistent with other children treated for dyspraxia. The research on the impact of sensory integration interventions for dyspraxia is mixed, but generally positive. I have attached some current research citations to this paper for further exploration.