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Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: Vestibular System

The vestibular system might not be one of the five basic senses we were taught as children, but it is arguably the most fundamental sense. It is the first sensation a fetus experiences prior to birth and as our other senses develop, they in many ways depend on the vestibular system to integrate properly. Along with the cochlea of the auditory system, it comprises the labyrinth of the inner ear. Movement of the fluids in these semicircular canals inform us of changes in our head position, gravitational pull, and direction and speed of movement. The vestibular system signals to our other senses when it’s necessary to make adjustments so that we can maintain balance, clear vision, adequate muscle tone, and coordination.

Difficulties with vestibular processing can make many aspects of everyday life challenging. These children may appear lazy, hyperactive, clumsy, inattentive, impulsive, or anxious. Dysfunction can present as hypo or hyper responsive and, much like the other sensory systems, a child may exhibit behaviors of both.

Signs of difficulty with vestibular processing include:

  • Dislike/fear or craving/seeking out activities requiring feet to leave the ground such as swings, slides, riding aSensory Processing Disorder the vestibular system bike, jumping or climbing.
  • Clumsiness or frequent falling
  • Often moving slowly/cautiously
  • Frequent motion sickness/dizziness
  • Appearing to never become dizzy with excessive spinning
  • Seemingly unaware of danger/risks or impulsively jumping, running, and/or climbing
  • Appearing frequently “lost” in their environment or having difficulty locating objects
  • Dislike of being moved to stomach or back as a baby or having their head tilted back
  • Rocking, spinning, twirling, or frequent head tilting. May also intently watch moving objects
  • Often prefers sedentary activities
  • Difficulty sitting still or unable to sustain attention without moving
  • Difficulty with reading, writing, and/or math
  • Often slouches, holds head up with hands, or prefers lying down

If you notice these red flags in your child, it is important to provide as many child-directed movement opportunities as possible. Be careful not to swing or spin your child excessively, as this can cause adverse reactions such as nausea or changes in breathing and heart rate. Consultation with an occupational therapist can help you identify activities that incorporate additional sensory systems while keeping in mind your child’s current level of security.

Below are just a few suggestions for important movement experiences to incorporate throughout your child’s weekly schedule:

  • Somersaults and cartwheels
  • Log rolling
  • Jumping rope
  • Bike riding
  • Swimming
  • Gymnastics
  • Lying on the stomach to complete activities
  • Climbing across or hanging upside down from monkey bars

More on the Subtypes of SPD:

  1. Sensory Processing Disorder: The Subtypes
  2. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Tactile System
  3. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Auditory System

NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

Shannon Phelan

Shannon Phelan

Shannon Phelan graduated with a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. As a student, Shannon completed an independent thesis project on attentional abilities in adults and children using measures of behavior and brain activity. She has research experience as a lab assistant in the Brain Waves Research Lab administering and reading results of electroencephalograms (EEG). Her practical experience includes spent time in a variety of settings including schools and inpatient, acute, and psychiatric hospital units prior to establishing her niche in the outpatient pediatric setting. Shannon has received training in Sensory Integration and Kinesio taping. Her favorite part about working at North Shore Pediatric Therapy is working closely with talented professionals of other disciplines who understand that quality care requires a holistic approach and open communication between families and team members. She believes in implementing evidence-based practice to address the unique needs of each child. Shannon is excited to help provide children and their families with the tools they need to lead full and satisfying lives.

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