What is the vestibular system, and how might difficulties with vestibular processing contribute to my child’s areas of difficulty?

What is the underlying neuroscience?

Simply put, the vestibular system is the body’s movement sense. The vestibular system is the body’s system responsible for processing movement and providing the brain with complex information of one’s movements and changing position in space so that movements can be well coordinated. The vestibular system is highly connected to the proprioceptive (body awareness) system so that the brain is simultaneously aware of the position of one’s arms and legs (proprioception) as the body and head change in position through movement (vestibular system). The vestibular system is also highly connected to the visual system in order to stabilize the visual field during movements moment by moment. Neuroanatomical components of the vestibular system include the semicircular canals and otolith organs in the inner ear, as well as vestibulospinal tracts within the brainstem. Vestibular processing differences are commonly seen in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as developmental delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sensory processing differences. All of that to say that the vestibular system is the body’s sensory system responsible for processing movement.

So what do problems with vestibular processing look like? There are two main types of vestibular processing differences: under-registration of vestibular input (where a lot of movement feels like a little) and hypersensitivity of vestibular input (where a little movement feels like a lot).

Children who are under-registering vestibular input may:

  • Seem to spin and spin on a swing without getting dizzy
  • Take excessive risks, such as by climbing on top of a play structure
  • Have difficulties balancing on one leg, particularly with eyes shut
  • Have difficulties sitting upright
  • Tend to lean on others while sitting
  • Fall out of chairs in the classroom or dinner table
  • Frequently bounce and jump without slowing down

Children who are overly sensitive to vestibular input may:

  • Become overwhelmed by movements such as swinging or intense bouncing
  • Become carsick easily
  • Become fearful on escalators or even stairs
  • Express fears during gross motor playground play or on swings
  • Avoid participation in sports and movement games

Children within both categories of vestibular processing differences may:

  • Have difficulties with bilateral coordination and sequencing activities, such as doing star jumps, skipping, or playing hopscotch
  • Have trouble maintaining attention when looking up at the board and back at their work
  • Have difficulties adjusting their visual attention while moving
  • Avoid certain learning activities such as handwriting

What does therapy look like, and what can I do at home?

Sensory-based therapy to address vestibular processing differences will involve activities that promote processing of vestibular movement, strategies to address the functional impact of these differences, and a sensory diet of activities to complete in the home setting. During the therapy session, your child’s occupational therapist may have your child:

  • Engage in various types of movement activities while simultaneously completing functional tasks such as handwriting, emotion identification, or problem-solving
  • Use visual targets during movement activities, such as throwing a ball at a target while on a swing
  • Practice activities that involve head and body movement and adjusting the posture and stabilizing the visual field during movement
  • Engage in slow versus fast movements, movements that involve acceleration and deceleration, and movements that are linear (in a line) as well as rotary (circular)

During these activities, your child will have to process the incoming vestibular information and integrate this information with other senses, such as the proprioceptive (body awareness) sense, and incoming visual information. Frequent practice of activities in therapy and the home setting leads to a smaller impact of these vestibular processing differences on children’s functional skills.

What are some activities I can do with my child at home that promotes vestibular processing?

  • Visiting the park to play on slides, swings, and obstacle courses
  • Playing hopscotch
  • Playing catch while swinging or while jumping on the trampoline
  • Skipping
  • Star jumps
  • Gymnastics-related activities (tumbling, handstands, hanging upside down)

Talk to your child’s occupational therapist if you are concerned about your child’s vestibular processing to determine if your child has any differences in the way he or she processes vestibular information and integrates this information with the other sensory systems.

If your child is not currently attending occupational therapy sessions and you think problems with proprioception may be impacting them call us on (07) 5578 2000 or book a Startup Session below to meet with one of our Senior OT’s!