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Dr. Anne Zachry

occupational therapist & child development specialist

Author: Anne Zachry (page 1 of 24)

Sensory Processing & the Vestibular System

The vestibular system helps us know where our bodies are in space and provides a sense of balance and posture.  As we move about, our eyes and ears take in sensory information and send that information to the brain.  The vestibular system is made up of 3 fluid filled canals, as well as a “sack-like” structure and a “pouch-like” structure, and all of these components work together to respond to movement, gravity, and changes in direction and in head position. The visual system works in conjunction with the vestibular system, allowing both eyes to work together and contributing to smooth eye movements. The proprioceptive system also plays a role in this process (which I will discuss in more detail in another post). As the brain coordinates all of this input, this provides a foundation for the timing and spatial orientation of our movements, allowing us to navigate our environment in a coordinated manner. In one way or another, this system influences everything we do. Think of the vestibular system as functioning like a switchboard, directing individual sensations where and when to go or stop. Considering all of the important functions of this system, it is quite apparent why a vestibular problem can lead to many problems that impact daily functioning.

Signs of Poor Vestibular Processing include:

  • Motion Sensitivity
  • Clumsiness- difficulty learning to ride a bicycle, hopping, and stair climbing
  • Low Muscle Tone
  • Visual-Spatial Problems
  • Poor Eye-Hand Coordination
  • Fear of Heights
  • Dizziness and/or Nausea

Vestibular Activities: Movement experiences are very important for the vestibular system during development, especially those that are child-directed rather than passive. Here are some ideas to help with vestibular functioning:

  • Encourage activities in which the child is positioned on the stomach, holding the head in an upright position
  •  Playground equipment – merry-go-rounds, slides, swings, teeter totter jungle gym, monkey bars
  • Rides at amusement parks
  • Jumping (games like leap frog), hopping, skipping
  • Balance games- walking on a line, twister, skating and bike riding
  • Spinning games- sit-n-spin, swing (never twirl or spin a child for prolonged periods of time as this can impact heart and breathing rates; let the child direct the spinning if possible)
  • Jump rope games
  • Tumbling- somersaults, rolling in all directions
  • Slow rocking – over a therapy ball, in a rocking chair, on a rocker, rocking horse
  • Obstacle courses that incorporate lots of head and body movements

photostock photo from freedigitalphotos.net

More About Sensory Defensiveness

If your child has tactile defensiveness, it’s likely that there are some other issues going on as well. You might notice a resistance to eating certain textures of food, which is called oral defensiveness. If your child demonstrates oversensitivity to light and visual distractibility, it’s possible that there is some visual defensiveness going on. If certain sounds are particularly annoying or even painful to your child, this is called auditory defensiveness. One type of defensiveness that I didn’t mention in my earlier post is gravitational insecurity. This is an extreme sensitivity to heights, movement and/or a change in head position in space.

When a child is experiencing defensiveness in more than one sensory system, it’s likely that this is impacting his or her quality of life. That means it’s time to seek therapy from an experienced therapist. A common treatment for sensory defensiveness is the Wilbarger Brushing program. This involves deep touch pressure using a special brush along with joint compressions. The program is typically done in conjunction with a “sensory diet” of activities that include vestibular and proprioceptive input. For little ones with oral defensiveness, there are special techniques that a trained therapist will utilize to address this issue. With the brushing program, the therapist will provide hands-on training so that the parents and other adults who work with the child can administer the program. It is typically carried out approximately every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day. Your therapist will supply brushes and replace them when needed.

Photo Credit: kdshutterman @ freedigitalphotos.net

Activities for Tactile Defensiveness

Children with sensory issues can be classified as having sensory defensiveness, registration problems, modulation issues, and sensory integration problems. In this entry, I’m going to share a little about sensory defensiveness, specifically tactile defensiveness. A child with general sensory defensiveness is overly sensitive to certain types of input from the environment, such as touch, textures (including food textures), sounds, lights (usually fluorescent), smells, and movement. When someone reacts negatively to touch in particular, that is called tactile defensiveness. Remember in the last post how I briefly explained the tactile system? Well, just imagine if this system was not functioning efficiently. All sorts of problems can present themselves! There are five sensory nerve receptors in the skin that let the central nervous system know what’s going on in the environment. These receptors are light touch (top of the skin), deep pressure, temperature (hot & cold) and pain. It is likely for one type of receptor to be overly sensitive and the other to not have a problem, which explains why some children may tolerate firm hugs, and then freak out when touched lightly. Here are some signs and symptoms that you might see with a child who is dealing with tactile defensiveness.

  • Frequently resists being held or cuddled by unfamiliar people
  • Dislikes water splashing or bath-time
  • Difficulty falling into a regular sleep/wake schedule
  • Dislikes being moved quickly such as being tipped in the air, swung around, bounced, or rocked suddenly
  • Difficulty with sucking, chewing, or swallowing new textures
  • Does not tolerate new foods or food textures – diet is limited
  • Exaggerated separation anxiety
  • Sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, crowds
  • Dislikes hands or face to be dirty
  • Uncomfortable around strangers or unfamiliar people
  • Late with milestones such as talking, walking, sleeping through the night, etc.
  • Problems with reflux or allergies to foods
  • Must be in a familiar environment to fall asleep
  • Prefers to be swaddled tightly, likes weight and deep pressure
  • Toe walks
  • Dislikes shoes and socks
  • Does not crawl before walking
  • Craves movement such as swinging, rocking or bouncing

       If a child has tactile sensitivity, here are some activities to try.  Any child’s sensory system will benefit from these activities, defensive or not.  Just be sure and remember to start slowly, and DO NOT force any input that your child resists. If your little one is extremely resistant, it’s probably time to consult your pediatrician and ask about the possibility of occupational therapy. There are more advanced treatments that can only be carried out under the supervision of a therapist. 

  • Spend a few extra minutes after bath time to vigorously rub the child with a towel, or guide them in doing so.  
  • Rub lotion or powder on the legs, hands, and arms while singing (for distraction purposes). Let them also rub the lotion or powder on you, especially if they won’t tolerate it on their own extremities.
  • Pretend face washing or shaving- with different textures of cloth or towels.
  • Use a variety of textured materials such as corduroy, fur, terry cloth, etc. and rub on your child’s back, arms and legs.
  • Put textured mittens or puppets on child’s hands and let him or her take them off.
  • Encourage your child to play in binds of sand, rice, beans or popcorn. Hide items and have the child locate them, guessing what they are while still covered. If your child won’t touch the textures, provide cups and shovels for play.
  • Have the child roll up in a blanket or sheet, then play hot dog – press on mustard, relish, etc., and then have them roll out.
  • Put shaving cream, lotion, or pudding on a large piece of aluminum foil and have the child draw a picture or write spelling words. Be sure to get both hands messy!
  • Finger painting or body painting with water-based paints.
  • Play in play dough or putty. Pulling, squeezing, rolling, etc.
  • Draw numbers/letters on the child’s back, arms, lets, etc. and have him identify. You can make it a multiple choice or yes-no question – Is this a 2 or a 5?
  • Provide activities that provide tactile input on the child’s entire body, such as a kid pool full of styrofoam, big soft pillows, or balls.
  • Games with physical contact are good – bear hugs, piggyback rides, wrestling, back rubs, petting animals.
  • Identifying objects with eyes closed – keys, comb, marble, block, coins, shapes, etc.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici- freedigitalphotos.net
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