SPD: The Vestibular System Explained

by Shayna Katzman

SPD: The Vestibular System Explained

In school, we are taught about the 5 senses and how they affect our perception of the world around us. We learned that without sight, smell, touch, taste, our bodies do not know how to react to our environment. These senses provide vital information which helps keep us safe and healthy.

But what we didn’t learn in school is that the body actually has more than 5 senses. We also have the proprioceptive system and the vestibular system.  

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. Yet, most people have never heard of it.

Vestibular Processing Disorder

As you move, fluid in your ear canal activate sensors in the middle and inner ear. Your body then combines this sense of movement with information from the eyes and ears. All of this data is combined together to give you a sense of where your body is in space.

Children with a developed vestibular system move with control and confidence. They can run, jump, climb, and bounce because their brain knows exactly where the body is in relation to other objects.

However, children with a vestibular dysfunction don’t move as confidently. Their body doesn’t know its exact location in space. Because the brain has a hard time organizing sensory information, it is not receiving the correct information from the senses. This makes their brain and body feel unsafe, and survival mode kicks in.

There are two types of vestibular dysfunction: hypersensitivity and under-sensitive.

Children who are hypersensitive to vestibular input cannot handle movement. This means that they are vestibular avoiding. Some signs include:

  • Scared of playground equipment
  • Doesn’t like to be turned upside-down
  • Appears clumsy and uncoordinated
  • Low muscle tone
  • Often moves slowly and cautiously
  • As a baby, does not like to be put on back or stomach
  • Slouches, holds head up with hands

Children who are under-sensitive are the exact opposite. They can tolerate a lot of movement before their brain registers that the body is moving. Some signs include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Impulsive behavior (jumping, running, and climbing)
  • Needs to be in constant movement (rocking, swaying, spinning)
  • Runs everywhere
  • Prefers to be upside-down
  • Appears to never be dizzy from spinning

How The Vestibular System Affects Behavior

The vestibular system acts like a traffic cop. It relays information from the body’s senses to the higher parts of the brain. This flow of information lets us know where we are in relation to the ground. When we jump, we know that we will land on the ground. This realization gives us confidence to move freely within our environment. It also the foundation of emotional stability and security in children.

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.

Your child may feel that he or she lacks control of the world around them. This can cause them to be fearful, impulsive, and or controlling. These types of behaviors can cause social problems at school and at home.

How Do I Strengthen My Child’s Vestibular System?

If you feel that your child has SPD and a vestibular processing disorder, it is important that you talk with your child’s pediatrician. You will get a referral to an Occupational Therapist (OT), who will then create a “sensory diet” for your child. This “diet” is a list of fun activities that provide personalized sensory input your child needs to stay focused throughout the day.

Some activities include:

  • Rocking on a porch swing
  • Dancing
  • Walking barefoot on uneven surfaces such as grass or sand
  • Swinging on a sensory swing
  • Jumping jacks
  • Hanging upside down off a couch, off your lap, or from monkey bars
  • Balancing on a balance beam, curb, or low wall
  • Climbing on playground equipment
  • Crawling
  • Jumping rope

Remember that your child’s needs may change from day to day, and they should never be forced to participate. If your child starts having a sensory meltdown, they are not ready. Before trying out these activities, please consult your child’s OT.

What are your child’s favorite vestibular activities? Let us know in the comments below!

Shayna Katzman
Shayna Katzman


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