When it comes to sensory processing disorder, autism, or anything else that requires a deeper look at sensory inputs, it can oftentimes be overwhelming to learn new terms and phrases.
With that in mind, we wanted to give you an overview of what vestibular input is, what kind of therapy relates to it, as well as easy to implement vestibular input activities that you can start doing with your child.
WHAT IS VESTIBULAR INPUT?
The vestibular system includes parts of the inner ear and brain that are affected by movement. While it is a system all of us have, unless you have vestibular system dysfunction as a child, teen, or adult, you likely have little knowledge about the intricacies of this system.
While vestibular disorders can affect people across the lifespan, this article will talk specifically about vestibular processing as it relates to sensory integration and/or sensory processing disorder.
When occupational therapists talk about the sensory systems, most parents have never heard of the vestibular system, and yet it is a critical system because it affects development in other areas.
In it's simplest form, vestibular input is the sensation of any change in position, direction, or movement of the head.
The receptors are located in the inner ear and are activated by the fluid in the ear canals moving as you move. When you go upside down, for example, the fluid in your ear canals give your central nervous system information about your body's position in space.
Vestibular input gives our bodies information about whether we are moving with or against gravity, fast or slow, moving or still, and what direction we're headed. From infancy through adulthood, vestibular information contributes to the development of:
- muscle tone
- righting reactions
- postural security
- eye movements
- overall alertness
WHAT IS THIS SYSTEM LINKED TO?
The vestibular system is neurologically interconnected with many other systems in the brain. An example is the limbic system, which is crucial for the development of further physical, emotional and psychosocial regulation and wellbeing. The vestibular processing system is also interconnected to the cerebellum, combining visual information to enable reflexive eye movements. This is needed for tracking moving objects, scanning, discriminating objects and visual gaze stabilization. This can impact activities such as reading, playing sports, adjusting visual attention whilst moving, and maintaining attention when alternating both looking at the white board and then at their own work.
VESTIBULAR PROCESSING DYSFUNCTION
If you're a child who is processing vestibular information appropriately, you are able to move with control, balance, and (relative) safety. You feel comfortable jumping, climbing, swinging, and taking calculated risks in your play because your vestibular sense is providing accurate information about where your body is in space.
If you're a child who is demonstrating difficulty with processing vestibular information, you're not as confident as the child mentioned above. You may be under- or over-responsive to movement which will impact your overall activity. If you're under-responsive to vestibular input, you may be able to tolerate a lot of movement before it registers, therefore your body may be in constant motion.
If you are over-responsive, or hypersensitive, to vestibular input, you may not be able to handle movement at all! Because of this difficulty, you may avoid activities that challenge your balance and coordination.
Both of these children can present as uncoordinated and likely demonstrate ocular motor difficulties as well. The vestibular and visual systems work together when our central nervous systems are in accordance. Vestibular dysfunction can also manifest with difficulties tracking, focusing, and smoothly looking between two objects (saccades).
If a therapist has mentioned vestibular processing, some of the related behaviors you may observe are:
- Low muscle tone
- Fatigue/lethargy or persistent sitting
- Resistance to movement
- Rocking, twirling, pacing, bolting (running away)
- Headbanging, shaking or hitting
SIGNS FOR SEEKING VESTIBULAR INPUT
Seeking vestibular input isn’t 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 under-processing the vestibular input. Basically, that means that the signal isn’t getting through that they’ve gotten vestibular input, so they keep trying to get it. That’s where vestibular activities come in, because they can help the brain start to process the input it’s getting better! For now, let’s talk about what signs you’ll see if your child is seeking vestibular input:
- Climbs dangerously high, can’t seem to get high enough
- Spins frequently (while standing, on swings, in swivel chairs)
- 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.
When looking at designing a sensory diet for your child, you want to take a close look at the type of vestibular stimulation that your child is receiving. There is a difference between swinging on a regular playground swing versus fast spinning on the tire swing. One provides linear, rhythmic, predictable vestibular input and another provides rotary, sometimes arrhythmic, unpredictable vestibular input (especially if the tire swing has multiple kids jumping on/off and changing up the directions!).
One type of swinging is calming and organizing (linear, rhythmic) while the other is alerting (rotary). An informed sensory diet will include specifically targeted vestibular activities to meet your child's individual sensory profile.
Alerting qualities of vestibular input can include:
- Unexpected, rapid movement
- Bumpy, jerky movement
- Changing direction
- Head inversion (upside down)
Calming qualities of vestibular input can include:
- Slow, rhythmic movement
- Linear movement (one direction)
- Slow movement provided with deep pressure
- Predictable movement
The considerations for vestibular input also extend to how your child is moving - is he laying on his belly on the swing? Sitting upright? Hanging upside down? Laying on his side?
When you change positions, you change which inner ear canals are activated by the movement. Again, this should be a consideration when selecting your child's movement activities.
VESTIBULAR INPUT ACTIVITIES AND PRODUCTS
Hammocks, cuddle or pod swings, wooden platform, inner tube, rope swing, trapeze, frog swings, bolster swing…each swing can target different skills and be used in different ways, so it's best to "consider a swing" with advice from your OT.
Check out Sensory Jungle’s new sensory swing here:
You can do a lot with a simple 4-wheeled scooter. Below are a few ideas but there are so many options!
Here is a short list of some fun activities to do while on the scooter board.
- Body Bowling. Set up bowling pins at one end of the room, and have the child ride the scooter board down to knock them over.
- Scatter magnetic fish around the floor and have the child go find them all.
- Superman catch: In scooterboard superman catch, you lay on your stomach on a scooterboard facing each other. Then you throw a light ball, balloon, or stuffed animal, back and forth.
- Pull the child around with a rope or a hula hoop.
- Do a puzzle. Have the puzzle pieces at one end of the room, and the puzzle board at the other end.
- Have bean bags or other objects at one end of the room that can be sorted into containers at the other end of the room.
- Place play food around the room, and you tell them what they need to find and get.
- Obstacle course of things you need to scoot around.
- Place cones around the room and give the child ping pong balls that they have to place on top of the cones.
- Follow a path of tape placed on the floor.
CHAIRS AROUND THE HOUSE THAT MOVE!
Rocking chairs, gliders, slides, porch swings, rocking horses - take a look around the house to see what you already have that moves. Often times, you can find something simple that can help out now.
SPECIAL SENSORY TOYS
Exercise balls or hippity hops - rolling, bouncing, upside down rocking. Anything like that can help. Small trampolines are also a great tool to use.
JUST YOU AND YOUR CHILD
What can you do to move your body in new ways? Try log rolling, toe touches, obstacle courses, and active play!
Once you know what your child needs to help activate their vestibular system, you'll be able to see an opportunity for purposeful activity in so much more.
Have fun with your child and consider how much intensity of vestibular input is needed as you select your next play activity.
SENSORY INTEGRATION THERAPY - VESTIBULAR THERAPISTS
An occupational therapist who is well versed in sensory integration treatment will design a comprehensive sensory diet with targeted vestibular-based activities. These activities will be targeted to your individual child's needs, so it's best to seek out a skilled clinician who can diagnose and treat vestibular dysfunction. If you feel that your child would benefit from Sensory Integration Therapy talk with your pediatrician to find out who offers it in your area. There are Occupational Therapists that specialize in this area and they should be able to refer you to them.