How does the vestibular sense in your child work?

Written by: Rachael Thomas, Occupational Therapist, Change for Life

Ever wondered why your child is always on the go or just hates the extra loud noises in crowded places? 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.  Vestibular input is received in the brain every time we move our head. Simply put, the vestibular system registers our body’s movement. The vestibular system is located within our inner ear, which is made up of canals that are lined with tiny little hairs. These canals are filled with fluid, and when we move, the fluid swishes around in the canals and touches the hairs. This sends a message directly to our brains so our body knows how and where to move!

This means that we get vestibular input, albeit mildly, when we turn our head or walk across the room. The greater the movement, the more vestibular input we receive because that fluid is swishing around on the receptors more! This is why our vestibular seeking kids are always trying to up the ante. They want bigger, more powerful vestibular input and they’ll get it when they move fast, climb high, hand upside down, swing, or spin. So what do problems with vestibular sensory input look like? There are two main types of vestibular processing differences: seeking vestibular input (where a lot of movement feels like a little) and hypersensitivity to vestibular input (where a little movement feels like a lot).

Many activities will help children who are seekers and children who are hypersensitive. For children are seekers these activities should be engaged in as often as possible for as long as your child desires. For children who are hypersensitive these activities should be engaged in using a gradual approach for as long as your child can tolerate, with the goal of increasing their sensory tolerance.  An occupational therapist specialises in helping children with sensory regulation.  If your child needs help see your GP or paediatrician and they can assist with professional help.