First of all, what is the vestibular sense? And where is it? Vestibular receptors are found in the inner ear, in the form of tiny hair cells. The vestibular system helps tell us when we’re up or down, moving or still, which direction we’re moving in, and how fast we’re going. When someone’s vestibular sense is out-of-sync, they may crave speed or be overly sensitive to it, they may be able to spin endlessly without getting dizzy or get motion sickness very easily, they may love dangling upside-down or be terrified of it, or they may not be able to tell if the train they are on is moving or if it’s the train next to theirs. An out-of-sync vestibular system, just like any other out-of-sync sense, likely leads to compensatory behaviors. Some of these may be harmful, disruptive, or not socially appropriate. Furthermore, they may interfere with the person’s ability to function smoothly in everyday life.
What happens if one of your clients or your child has an out-of-sync vestibular system? They may be underesponsive or overesponsive to vestibular stimuli, or they may seek or crave vestibular stimulation. Any of these forms of sensory processing disorder can cause disturbance and frustration in their everyday functioning. Is the client terrified of moving/being moved? They may have an overesponsive vestibular system. Does the client not notice they are moving? They may have an underesponsive vestibular system. Does the child crave swaying, spinning, or being upside-down? They may be seeking more vestibular stimuli. The challenge arises in the fact that the child’s behaviors are not always so straightforward, and the category of sensory processing disorder under which their symptoms and behaviors fall may not be very clean cut. What I found most challenging is, how do you determine what sensory needs the child has and how to best address them?
The author of The Out-of-Sync Child, Carol Stock Kranowitz, recommends that parents or caregivers keep a diary of their child’s “troubling times,” noting the behavior, the date and time of day, and the circumstances. Parents and caregivers should also keep a diary of the child’s “terrific times,” again noting the behavior, date and time of day, and circumstances. This may help determine triggers for challenging behaviors and also the things or circumstances that lead to the child feeling in-sync. Matching the out-of-sync trigger with the in-sync antidote, can help parents, caregivers, and therapists determine which category of sensory processing disorder the child’s symptoms fall under, and how to provide the appropriate sensory diet and therapy for the child. I am challenging myself to keep track, in a similar way, of “troubling times” and “terrific times” in my some of my clients who have sensory processing needs, in order to better track cause-effect-solution patterns. In doing so, I hope to understand better what I can do to help their senses feel in-sync.
To better understand sensory processing disorders (SPD), or if you suspect your child, a client, or someone you know may have SPD, I highly recommend reading The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz.