What is Vestibular Input and What Therapy Helps?

September 21, 2017

vestibular input blog post

When it comes to sensory processing disorder, autism, or anything else that requires a deeper look at sensory inputs, it can often times 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, adult, or older 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
  • balance
  • postural security
  • eye movements
  • overall alertness

For a detailed guide about the vestibular system, check out this article.

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
  • Clumsiness
  • Rocking, twirling, pacing, bolting (running away)
  • Headbanging, shaking or hitting

Vestibular Stimulation

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.

child swingingAlerting qualities of vestibular input can include:

  • Unexpected, rapid movement
  • Bumpy, jerky movement
  • Changing direction
  • Bouncing
  • 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

Vestibular Swings

harkla sensory swing

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 or get some ideas here.

Read all about sensory swings in our in-depth article found here.

Scooterboard

You can do a lot with a simple 4-wheeled scooter. Check out this list of ideas here.

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 ballsor 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!

Jumping

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 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.

To find an SI-trained OT near you, check out STAR Institute's OT resource page here.

 

About the Author

Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports. You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at www.adaptandlearn.com.


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