How Does The Vestibular System Affect Children’s Behaviors
Information from the eyes, ears, and vestibular system combine to give an awareness of yourself in relation to the space around you. So your eyes tell you where you are in the room, your ears tell you what is going on in the room, the vestibular system recognizes if your body is standing still, moving, if it is balanced, etc. All of this information is then filtered through your brain and then your brain provides a response. This affects your arousal, motor and language responses.
When someone has a fairly normal or a well developed vestibular system, all of this information is categorized appropriately and the appropriate response is given. It has been said that Olympic athletes or people who are constantly moving and putting their body or senses through new experiences have the best developed vestibular systems.
So here is the problem. kids do not move or experience things like they use to. Many experiences that helped children to build strong vestibular systems are not happening. If your child is in school, their recess and free time to move and explore has been cut down to a bare minimum. Then they come home and go straight to the tv, video games, movies, etc or homework. They are not outside and moving like kids 100 years ago were.
Here are just a few things that are important to building a strong vestibular system:
- Basically moving and putting their bodies, in particular, their head in as many different positions or movements as possible
What Causes Poor Vestibular Processing
Poor vestibular processing can occur for a variety of reasons often, however, children develop a vestibular disorder for no known reason. Possible causes for poor vestibular processing include: premature birth and a fairly long period of incubation after birth, exposure to excessive movement or invasive sounds as a fetus or infant, neglect during infancy, repeated ear infections or severe ear infections, maternal drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy, or general developmental delay and immature development of the nervous system.
Autism And The Vestibular Sensory System
For Sensory Integration and hildren with autism, vestibular-based disorders causing them to fear or avoid movement, seek out excessive amounts and/or seem clumsy. Occupational therapy treatment and sensory diets rich in vestibular, as well as proprioceptive and tactile stimulation help these children with motor planning and body awareness so that their brains can better organize information, focus and learn. Here are a few examples of sensory rich activities:
- Fast rotary movements on a tire swing
- Scooting down an inclined ramp
- Crashing into a pillow mountain while flying on an inner tube swing
- Jumping on a trampoline or hopping ball
Part II in this series discusses the impact of proprioceptive stimulation on sensory integration.
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Swinging For Sensory Integration
One method that has shown success for students with sensory processing disorders is utilizing a swing. Swinging allows a child to neutralize the disruptions that are caused by their vestibular system, which can often originate in the inner ear. The smooth, back-and-forth motion can be soothing and calming to a child, which is why you will often see swings utilized in classroom or therapy settings. If families want to try this at home, they can purchase a simple outdoor swing, or one that has straps and allows the child to feel secure and snugly comforted by the deep stimulus. Many companies also offer swings that can be installed in doorways for families without access to outside space.
Children with processing disorders may find balance and feel comfortable and safe when a swing is utilized as part of their day.
What Are Some Symptoms Of Poor Vestibular Processing
Symptoms and functional difficulties of poor vestibular processing include:
- Over-arousal or under-arousal
- Avoiding movement at all costs
- Difficulty maintaining attention
- Motion sickness , dizziness or nausea caused by watching things move
- Excessive spinning or excessive watching of things spin
- Inability to read or write in cursive
- Inability to sustain listening without moving or rocking
- Problems with balance and/or vertigo
- Difficulty walking on uneven ground, and difficulty navigating stairs
- Head banging
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Autism And The Proprioceptive And Vestibular Senses
Im sure many of you wondered if I knew what I was talking about several weeks ago when I mentioned I would be talking about the six senses. Many people have never heard of the proprioceptive and vestibular senses and they are ones that can really affect people with autism. Rob and Casey both have issues with their proprioceptive/vestibular senses.
Basically, the proprioceptive sense tells your brain where your body is. Like closing your eyes and being able to touch your nose with your finger. Rob cant do it. Casey can, but she struggles with it. It also tells you whether your feet are on concrete or grass. Receptors for the proprioceptive sense are deep in joints and muscles. You need your proprioceptive sense for smooth body movements so it is vitally important for all motor skills.
Vestibular sense is more for balance and spatial orientation. It helps you balance on one foot. Its how your body understand how you are moving like what direction and how fast, even whether or not you are moving. So many people on the autism spectrum have problems with fine or gross motor skills and these two sense are the reasons why. Just like with the other five senses, a person can have a hyper or hypo sense of their body and how its moving.
An occupational therapist should be able to give you more ideas on what may help your child. Dont be afraid to ask sensory issues are not always the first thing people think of and those issues are often the root of so many problems.
Vestibular Sensory Processing Signs To Look For:
- Hyperresponsive Behaviors
- Doesn’t like movement
- Avoids having head be upside down/tipped backwards
- Appear to be clumsy or unsteady
- Hyporesponsive Behaviors
- Always spinning, running, moving, fidgeting Doesn’t get dizzy
- Risky behavior
- Enjoy being upside down
How occupational therapy can help?
Occupational Therapy can help children with vestibular sensory processing difficulties better engage in activities at home, school, and in the community. Using play and sensory strategies, OT can gradually increase a child’s tolerance to vestibular movement provide a safe environment to seek vestibular input provide strategies to increase sensory input into other sensory systems that may help to regulate the vestibular system and work with parents and caregivers to educate about activities to try at home.
Ideas to try at home:
- Hyperresponsive: Slow rhythmic movement
- Hyporesponsive: Provide safe opportunities for movement, rotary swings , jumping, unpredictable movement
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Signs For Seeking Vestibular Input
Seeking vestibular input isnt necessarily a bad thing, some kids simply like it and enjoy the sensation. However, if your child is constantly, almost obsessively looking for ways to get vestibular input, it can start to interfere with life. This fixation on movement happens because their brain is underprocessing the vestibular input. Basically, that means that the signal isnt getting through that theyve received vestibular input, so they keep trying to get it. Thats where vestibular activities come in, because they can help the brain start to process the input its getting better! For now, lets talk about what signs youll see if you child is seeking vestibular input:
- Climbs dangerously high, cant seem to get high enough
- Spins frequently
- Seeks out swinging
- Never seems to get dizzy
- Always moving, running
Kids that seek vestibular input also often seek proprioceptive input. These two senses are the powerhouses of the whole sensory system, and they work closely together. Head to sensory seeking activities and proprioceptive activities to learn more.
How Do I Know If My Child Has Problems With Vestibular Processing
Some kids with sensory disorders particularly have issues with vestibular processing. This may present as a child who is fearful of movement as a whole, unable to react or move because of a fear of getting off-balance. On the other hand, some kids may be unable to stop moving and may have a hard time with safety awareness. These issues can severely impede daily life and regular activities in the home, school or community.
Learn more about an over responsive vestibular system here.
Learn more about an under responsive vestibular system here.
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What Might It Look Like If The Vestibular System Isnt Working Well
When the vestibular system doesnt process the information it receives very well, there are three typical responses. Some children and adults are sensitive to vestibular input, which means their brains respond to only a small amount of movement. Other children and adults are slower to respond to the input, which means they need more movement to understand the information their vestibular sense receives. These children and adults could either respond by seeking out more movement or by just being slow to respond and a bit sluggish. There are also children or adults who might display a combination of the three responses.
Some typical traits seen for each type of response are listed below.
Balance And The Vestibular Sense
Balance is essential for all of our movement. Without balance we would not be able to roll over, sit up or walk. We rely heavily on the feedback from our inner ear to make sure we dont fall over if the ground is uneven or when there are steps. We can also keep our bodies steady if the surface underneath us moves, for example on escalators. When we roll over in bed, it is our vestibular system that makes sure we dont roll out! Majority of the body movements we make rely on good balance and postural control.
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Using The Vestibular Sense For Self
The vestibular system can be also likened to the volume control button for the body, as quick up and down or spinning head movements tend wake us up whilst slower rocking head movements, or keeping the head still, helps us to calm down.
Before you start: Respect your childs reaction to vestibular input as it can cause nausea, a headache, or flushing of the skin. Some children dont know yet when they have had enough, so monitor them closely and stop means stop if your child has clearly had enough.
Alerting vestibular activities:
- Jumping bouncing games Vertical movement is the most accepted form of vestibular input for the body and brain it is both regulating and organizing as it involves another body sense the proprioceptive sense
- Spinning games. These are very powerful and can easily over-stimulate a child. Hence spinning games need to be controlled, supervised, and monitored especially with children who have sensory differences. Guide your child to spin no more than 7 10 times in one direction at around 1 spin/revolution per secondthen to stop briefly, then spin the other direction.
- Swinging games. Fifteen minutes of swinging can have a 6-8 hour effect on the brain.
How To Help Kids Tolerate Vestibular Input And Activities
As you read above, its important to help kids that avoid vestibular input to tolerate and eventually accept it through vestibular activities that will help them process it better. However, we never want to force a child to participate in a sensory activity, especially vestibular. Here are some suggestions for helping your child accept vestibular activities:
- Start with movements that keep a childs feet securely on the ground. Think about yoga poses and hand motions to Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes as great starting points for them to get their head inverted.
- Take small steps, allowing them to get comfortable with the activity slowly over time. For instance, you may start with just pushing a swing, then leaning against it, then sitting with one leg touching the ground, etc. You can break down many of the vestibular activities above in similar ways. It may take weeks or months before your child readily participates.
- When using equipment that they are unsure of like a trampoline, large ball, or scooter board, keep a very firm hand or two on their shoulders, waist, or arm. This deep pressure that you give them will be very grounding and help them feel more secure.
- Let your child know that you are there to help them, and they can let you know if they are feeling scared or dizzy.
What Proprioception Does
We all have receptors in our muscles that tell us where our body parts are. For example, if you raise your hand, you know that your arm is over your head. You dont have to think about it or look in a mirror. But kids with poor proprioception may think their arm is over their head when its really straight out in front of them.
We Need The Stimulation
Neurotypical people may only need the feeling of their buttin their chair to tell them where their body is. But for many autistic or otherwiseneurodivergent people, we need more. Autisticchildren and adults often need more input for our proprioceptive system to makesense of what its getting. Withoutenough proprioceptive input, our bodies may go limp and slouchy, we might leanon things, or we may appear clumsy because were not sure where our limbs are. When we actively seek proprioceptive information,we might run and jump, chew on things, play roughly, or generally have trouble beingstill.
Autistic people often have a similar need for vestibularinput we need a lot of information for this system to do its job. Low vestibular input will lead us to full-bodyrocking, spinning on foot or in chairs, or any kind of rhythmic movement. Some people who seek vestibular input may tendto always move quickly children may run, skip, or hop everywhere they go.
Jessicas Story Movement Sensitivity
Jessica has very low thresholds for movement. She doesnt like having her feet off the ground. This includes when she is lifted up into the air by adults. And if she is put on a swing. Therapist sometimes call this gravitational insecurity. Her parents learnt early on to keep her close to them when they lifted her up and that aeroplane games were not her favourite. She has been working her her occupational therapist to help to decrease her movement sensitivity.
Swinging The Vestibular System And How Children Find Balance
Most of us take our senses, as well as our brain’s ability to process them seamlessly, for granted. Think about all that your senses must process in order to walk down a street or go outside: the movement of others around you, the cool breeze against your neck, the sound of conversation or traffic. Someone with a sensory processing disorder would struggle with the unpredictable movements of others around them, the sharp sting of the wind, or understanding where the voices or noises were coming from. The process of these activities coordinating in your brain is called sensory integration, and for many students with learning difficulties, targeted exercises can help.
What Is Vestibular Sensory Processing
The vestibular system is responsible for receiving information as the body moves through its environment. Located within the inner ear, the vestibular system receives sensory information from head movement and gravity to maintain balance, equilibrium and movement through space. Movement and balance is necessary for children to explore their environment. It is also important in the development of emotional security and confidence. For children, vestibular movement can include running, jumping, swinging, or spinning. If a child is hyperresponsive to vestibular input, they will often avoid too much movement because it makes their body feel unbalanced and insecure. If a child is hyporesponsive to vestibular input they may seek excessive amounts of movement that could be considered unsafe at times.
Balance And Postural Control
Balance and postural control are essential for all motor skills. Sitting at a desk requires good postural control. So does sitting on the carpet. Without it, you will likely start leaning into your peers. Using a pencil or a computer also require good postural control. Playtime and PE are also much more difficult without good balance and postural control.
Children and adults who are more sensitive to movement may avoid activities and reduce their opportunities for learning. Those who seek out extra input often are too quick and have poor control over their movements. They often get in trouble for constantly being on the go. Those with slower responses often have poor coordination and tire more easily as they need to use more effort to sustain positions than their peers.
The Ultimate List: Vestibular Sensory Toys
Did you guys think there were only 5 Senses?? You know, sight, sound, taste, touch, & smell. Well, so did I before becoming a special educator and learning about the other two senses we have vestibular and proprioceptive. Vestiublar is sense of balance and spatial orientation which helps coordinate movement with balance and proprioceptive which is referred to as the sixth sense, was developed by the nervous system as a means to keep track of and control the different parts of the body. My daughter Addie does have some sensory processing issues and I am always on the hunt out for the best ways to regulate and organize herself. We have been working with two OT’s over the past 1.5 years and have come up with some activities to help organize her since she seeks vestibular input. I am in the process of creating the Ultimate Guide to all my favorite sensory toys for each system and first up is vestiublar. Before you dive in, if you want to know the basics about Sensory Processing check out my article Sensory 101.
SENSORY PLAY AND USING TOYS THAT STIMULATE THE SENSES ARE IMPORTANT FOR ALL KIDS, WHETHER YOU ARE COMPLETELY TYPICAL, A HANDS ON LEARNER, HAVE AUTISM, ADHD, A SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER, OR A COMBINATION OF THINGS.
What the heck is Vestiublar System?
Why is it important?
Vestibular Avoiding vs Vestibular Seeking
Here are some of my favorite toys