What is the Vestibular system? 

Like touch, smell, taste, hearing and vision, our vestibular system is one of our sensory systems. The vestibular system is one of the 3 senses that is less spoken about (vestibular, proprioception and interoception). The vestibular system is our movement sense and is stimulated by movement (the receptors are located in the inner ear). 

In the sensory integration framework, we look at the vestibular system through two lenses: vestibular reactivity and vestibular perception.

What is the difference between vestibular reactivity and vestibular perception?

Vestibular reactivity: 

Vestibular reactivity refers to how we cope with vestibular input (meaning movement). Do I like merry-go-rounds, ziplines, swinging, running, jumping, bungy jumping or skydiving? Or am I afraid of heights and speed, avoid merry-go-rounds, get car sick easily and prefer more sedentary activities? 

If you were excited reading the first few examples, your threshold would lie more towards the under-reactive or typical threshold – meaning that you cope well with movement and often need more movement than others to get through your day. On the other hand, if the second few examples sounded more like you, you are more over-reactive to vestibular input – meaning that you struggle to cope with too much movement and it can easily over stimulate you.

Here are some examples of how over-reactivity to vestibular input can present in your child:

  • Dislikes being thrown up in the air
  • Cries when his/her position is being changed suddenly
  • Dislikes his/ her head being tilted backwards
  • Avoids movement activities (such as swinging)
  • Gets car sick easily
  • Does not like it when his/her feet leave the ground
  • Being overly excited after movement activities (can’t sleep, suddenly cries, laughs louder than normal, poor concentration)
  • Look out for signs of over stimulation such as toe-curling, hand-splaying, frowning or  more drooling than usual. 

Here are some examples of how under-reactivity to vestibular input can present in your child:

  • Seeking movement all the time
  • Can’t sit still for age-appropriate amount of time 
  • Riding on their chair whilst sitting at a table
  • Improved concentration after movement activities 
  • Soothes well with movement (such as swinging or rocking)
  • Prefer games with movement

Vestibular perception:

This term refers to  the interpretation and understanding of where our body is moving in space. To understand this term better, let’s explain it with an example. If you were to be thrown in the back of a car’s boot, you can feel when the car is moving forward, accelerating, slowing down, turning left and turning right – thus understanding the movement your body is experiencing.

Vestibular perception together with proprioceptive perception is very important for the development of our balance, postural control and bilateral integration (the use of the two sides of our body simultaneously). A child with difficulties with vestibular perception can appear to be clumsy, have poor balance, difficulty with coordination and participating in sport, accident prone, delayed gross motor development (such as rolling) and even have difficulties with reading or writing.

If you recognise signs of difficulty with this system, it is important to expose your child to regular movement opportunities, such as swinging, jumping, rolling, swimming, summersaults etc. 

An occupational therapist can assist in integrating your child’s vestibular system and develop his/her vestibular perception. They also assist in learning appropriate regulation strategies for over or under reactivity towards movement. 

If you have any questions regarding this system, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Written by Tanya Kriel, Bright Eyes Therapy. 

For more information you are welcome to contact us on 0836161662 or email us at ashley@brighteyestherapy.co.za

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