Most children love playing on a jungle gym, dangling from the monkey bars, and swinging on a swing. Yes, these activities are a fun way to release excess energy, but did you know that they promote proper brain development? And that occupational therapists actually use swing therapy as a sensory integration tool for children with autism?
It may sound strange to us adults, but children’s minds and bodies actually need to learn how to work together. This is why it’s so difficult for young babies to start walking. Or why toddlers so often trip or fall when running. It takes time and experience for their bodies to understand spatial relationships. When children run, jump, and swing, their body learns how to navigate their environment.
However, children with SPD and autism don’t get enough exposure to these types of activities. Because of this, their brain has a hard time organizing sensory information.
For children with SPD and autism, there is a defect in the way they process sensory information. This means that their brain is constantly bombarded with sensory input that it has no idea what to do with. This makes their world a pretty scary place to be in. Walking can be frightening because they don’t know where to place their feet. A soft touch on the back can feel like a punch. They cannot tell from which direction their teacher’s voice is coming from, and her words don’t make sense.
Swing therapy teaches the brain how to efficiently organize and filter sensory input.
But how does it work exactly?
Swing therapy creates a more “normal” environment by providing sensory input that your child is lacking. Swinging gives your child’s brain and body the chance to finally learn how to work together.
While most people think that vision and hearing are the most important of the senses, their affect is small compared to the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Although most people have never heard of these two systems, they have the largest impact on sensory integration. Swing therapy is a fun, pleasant way to introduce kids with special needs to these senses.
The vestibular system is the sense of movement. It lets us know if we’re moving, how fast we’re moving, and in which direction we’re headed.
This system is the most influential of all the senses as it affects almost everything we do. Balance, coordination, fine motor skills, and even self-regulation all rely on the vestibular system.
But when there’s a problem with vestibular processing, the body doesn’t know how to move and react to the environment. When your child jumps or does a somersault, they do not know that they will land on the ground. This lack of confidence can be very scary and transcends into their behavior.
Swing therapy stimulates fluid in the inner ear, which activates vestibular sensors. It lets your child know that they are in fact moving. This lets your child get used to the sensation of moving, which makes them feel more grounded. Eventually, your child will gain the confidence to navigate their environment.
The proprioceptive system informs our body of its position in space by directing muscles on how to react to external stimuli. Like the other 6 senses, proprioception is essential for building body awareness and a sense of security
An underdeveloped proprioceptive system requires tremendous concentration to react to a surrounding environment. The brain is unable to transform vision stimuli to proper physical reactions. To be more specific, the brain is unable to identify where specific body parts are in relation to one another.
Occupational therapists usually use sensory swings during swing therapy. These swings are made of special fabric that cuddle and cocoon your child as they swing back and forth. This puts pressure on the body’s sensory receptors. This form of Deep Pressure Therapy not only calms the nervous system, but allows your child to feel their body’s movements. They can sense when their arm is outstretched or when their knee is bent. Sitting in the sensory swing gives your child a better understand of their body’s location.
Swing therapy stimulates both the body and the mind. It gives children with special needs the opportunity to learn how to organize incoming sensory input. Sensory swings are a great addition to any sensory diet or sensory room. The swings are versatile and can be used by sensory seeking and sensory avoiding children.
If you feel that your child will benefit from a sensory swing, it is important that you talk with your child’s pediatrician and OT. Remember that your child’s needs may change from day to day, and they should never be forced to participate in sensory activities.
Have you seen a change in your child after swing therapy? Let us know in the comments below!
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