The Vestibular System

May 23, 2016

In past blogs we have referred to a sensory lifestyle. Now let’s delve deeper into the various sensory systems of the body that we target starting with the Vestibular System. First, an overview of the physical components followed by its purpose and effects. Then we will cover how you can work with this system to effect positive change in your child. As was mentioned in previous blogs, this is with the understanding you have a therapist to help guide you with your particular child’s needs.

The vestibular system is a part of the neurological system and is composed of tiny organs within the inner ear. It gives us information about movement and balance. There is fluid inside these tiny organs, and depending on how the fluid moves, our brain knows what position our head is in and how quickly we are moving. This is the system that makes us dizzy and thrills (or terrifies) us when we are on carnival rides, skiing or just rocking in a chair. Some people can tolerate high amounts of this stimulation and love to move, and some prefer to remain still. As with most other systems of the body, it is there to help us make more sense of our world and detect dangerous situations  and keep us safe.

A child seeking excessive vestibular stimulation is constantly “on the go,” does sedentary activities such as watching TV in interesting positions (i.e. hanging upside down off a couch) and has a hard time holding still. She may be the first to volunteer for a job at school simply to get out of her chair. He loves the playground, especially the moveable equipment like swings and merry-go-rounds. These children often enjoy being rocked to sleep and may seem more calm after movement play. Because this child’s “alarm” doesn’t go off easily, he may be unsafe and not a good judge of situations.

Conversely, there are children who avoid movement, who are very sensitive, but sometimes they are hard to detect. This child may seem to be very cautious and less interested in movement play. They prefer to stay closer to the ground unless they feel very secure. It would be very easy to mistake this child for just being “quiet and easy.” It may be fear that is preventing that child from participating in more active fun. Her vestibular system may be setting off its alarm way too soon with a very small amount of stimulation.

Either way, the treatment is very similar. For a child who is seeking movement, offer it in a safe way. The avoiding child may need encouragement to participate but in small steps to help build confidence and allow the vestibular system to gradually become accustomed to more stimulation. It is very important to monitor your child to be sure they do not get over stimulated, and your therapist can help you with developing that judgment as well as how to address overstimulation. The TCTCI clinic is uniquely designed to offer a good variety of swings and equipment that can be suspended from the ceiling as well as many other kinds of vestibular experiences in a space where your child can explore safely. The therapist is able to set up the treatment room specially for your child’s needs. Do not hesitate to ask what each piece of equipment does for your child so you can learn more about his needs and ways to help at home.

Home. What can you do? First thing is to look at what you have access to in your child’s environment (home, school, park, relatives and neighbors’ homes). Look for things that move or spin, swings, chairs, playground equipment, swimming pools, etc. There are a number of children’s toys that offer vestibular stimulation such as Sit N Spin, scooter board, Bilbo, large balls, and trampoline. Close supervision is always recommended for safety.  Offer some vestibular activity at different times in the day, but not close to bedtime. Follow with heavy work such as push-pull-carry (proprioceptive) activities to help your child calm and reorganize after vestibular stimulation. Go at your child’s pace, but try not to allow them to get overstimulated. Some children can swing for only a short time, and some can go for a very long time. The avoiding child should eventually be able to tolerate more stimulation and therefore begin to explore his environment in a more confident manner. The sensory seeking child may need less stimulation to be satisfied and may even come to feel dizzy, often a new and strange sensation for him. Either way, the changes are positive and are helping your child to develop and play with less distress for him and you.

Written By: Nancy Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

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