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Sensory Simplified: Diving into the Vestibular System

Vestibular processing involves the interpretation of movement and head position, including direction and speed.

Recognized as a “big three” power sense, the vestibular system plays a significant role (along with the proprioceptive and tactile systems) in our awareness, coordination and sense of self. It’s often referred to as "the body’s internal GPS."

While one child can be calmed by the gentle rocking of his mother, another may become uneasy after a round on the amusement park teacups. Arguably the most powerful sensory system, vestibular input can alert or arouse us, soothe us, disorient us or help us feel secure.

It assists with balance, orientation, coordination, eye control, security in movement and some aspects of speech and language. Let’s jump on into the details!

How it Works

The vestibular system encompasses structures in the inner ear. These structures include three semicircular canals and two pockets (or otolith organs). Here's a quick look at some simplified components of the vestibular system:

The vestibular labyrinth contains the semicircular canals, which assist in maintaining balance and are filled with fluid. As the head position changes, fluid moves activates nervous responses from tiny "hair cells" within these tubes. This communication to the brain informs us on what changes we may need to make to keep our balance.

The olotith organs, or the saccule and the utricle, rely on the gravitational displacement of crystals to determine the directional movements and positional planes that we're assuming.

So long story short, here: the hair cells, crystals and fluid within these structures give the brain feedback on head movement and position. Through changes within these structures, we can determine whether we’re moving back and forth, in a diagonal direction, side to side, vertically or in a rotary motion (around in circles).

Our vestibular system is closely linked to safety, survival, attention and arousal. In conjunction with our other sensory systems, it allows us to feel secure and in control of our movements.

So what happens if one experiences vestibular processing difficulties?

Vestibular Dysfunction

Many of us are familiar with common vestibular issues, like motion sickness or vertigo. If we’re experiencing vestibular dysfunction, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling. So let’s discover some common differences in vestibular processing, and signs of potential processing difficulties.

As explained in our very first Sensory Simplified blog, children who are hyposensitive to specific input tend to present with decreased responsiveness to movement. Signs of vestibular seeking, or hyposensivity, may include:

  • Frequent rocking, fidgeting, swaying or moving

  • Frequent running, jumping or climbing

  • Appearing to play impulsively

  • Requiring increased input to remain alert

  • Having difficulty remaining seated

  • Appearing inattentive or lazy

Those that are hypersensitive to input have an increased response to movement activity. Signs that a child is over over-responsive to vestibular input may include:

  • Disliking change in position, like diaper changing or being picked up

  • Being fearful of wings or climbing playground equipment

  • Disliking having head inverted or being upside down

  • Disliking “rough housing” or movement play

  • Appearing overly cautious on stairs

This helps our body detect things like if we’re going upward or downward, side to side, forward or backward, fast or slow or spinning around in a circle.

Vestibular Activities that provide vestibular input include:

  • Swinging

  • Head inversion

    • Upside down bowling

    • Hanging upside down

  • Scooter board

  • Jumping

  • Somersaults

  • Log rolls

  • Riding a bike

  • Yoga poses

  • Bouncing

  • Rocking

  • Spinning*

Vestibular play is powerful input that should be monitored for negative reactions. Negative reactions can occur up to 6-8 hours after vestibular input - even if the child appears to tolerate it at the time of the activity. Children may also have difficulty gauging how much is too much - so observation and monitoring is key.*

Check out our full list of vestibular activities here.

Tips for Implementing Vestibular Input

As always, we recommend you consult your child’s occupational therapist to determine the vestibular input that is both appropriate and beneficial for your child.

When it comes to implementing movement, consider the following:

Easy Does It

When it comes to vestibular exposure, more doesn’t necessarily make merrier - even if it’s an input that the child seems to enjoy. Monitor your child for vestibular overload by keeping an eye out for dizziness, respiration changes, disorientation, dilated pupils, sweaty palms or pallor. Just fifteen minutes of vestibular input can last for 6-8 hours. While this impact can be beneficial, it can also have the opposite effect - so slow, graded exposure decreases the chances of sensory overload.

Provide Predictability

Giving the child a sense of control can ease the anxiety that comes with exposure to new sensory input. By providing anticipatory cues (ready, set, go! or 3, 2, 1… go!) you provide clarity on when to expect movement.

Fun tip: we recommend counting down vs. counting up. When counting down, you provide the child a concrete end - after 1, we’re done. When you’re counting up - there is no concrete end to the activity.

Provide grounding opportunities

Try inverting the head from a standing position (like performing head shoulders knees toes, upside down bowling). Increasing the child’s sense of security, such as positioning them in your lap, may be beneficial during swing or slide exposure.

*Rotary (spinning) input can have a profound impact on the brain. We highly recommend this article written by Angie Voss, OTR, in regards to precautions to rotary input.

Read up on more things sensory by exploring other blogs in this series here.

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