How to help a child with vestibular autism?

Most children who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday information, and their senses can be under- or over-sensitive or even both at the same time. These sensory differences can affect their behaviour and have a profound effect on both their lives and yours. Let’s take a closer look at one of these sense imbalances, vestibular autism, so that you can understand why the child is reacting like they do, and how you can help.



What is the vestibular system?

Most people reading this will not have a clue what the word vestibular means, and that is OK as it is not a word that is used very often. To explain clearly what it is, let’s go back to the beginning. There are five senses that we all have, and these are:

  • Auditory (sound)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Taste
  • Visual (sight)

What many people don’t know is that we have a sixth sense, which is called the vestibular system and this is based in the middle and inner ear. The vestibular system controls our sense of balance and movement and so it has a very close relationship to attention, gravity, safety and survival – so it is a big thing!


How does the vestibular system affect behaviour?

The vestibular system works in conjunction with the eyes and ears to give you an awareness of yourself in the space around you. So, your eyes can tell you where you are in a room, your ears can tell you what is happening in the room, and your vestibular system recognises whether your body is upright, moving, standing still and so on. All of this information that is gathered by your senses is then passed to your brain which provides a response. This response can affect both your language and your motor responses.

If someone has a ‘normal’ vestibular system then the information gathered by their senses is appropriately categorised and an appropriate response is given. In fact, it is often said that Olympic athletes who are constantly moving and putting their senses through new experiences have the most well-developed vestibular systems.

The things that people do that help their vestibular system to develop into a strong system are:

  • Climbing
  • Crawling
  • Jumping
  • Rolling
  • Swinging
  • Tummy time

Basically, any type of movement where you put in your head in a different position helps to build your vestibular system.

If your child has an under developed vestibular system then their brain may not get the right information from their ears or eyes, their sense of gravity or any movement in their body. This will therefore mean that their brain and body will feel unsafe which can cause their survival mode to kick in.

Every child will have a different limit of what their vestibular system can handle. Some children may have a low threshold which means even the smallest of movements can send their vestibular system into flight or fight mode, while others have a very high threshold meaning it takes a lot of movement to stimulate their survival mode. Some practical examples of this include:

  • Claustrophobia – feeling like the room is caving in on you.
  • Motion Sickness
  • Spinning – some people can spin for hours and not care, whereas others may feel sick after just a small spin


How to teach an autistic child to ride a bike

One of the major abilities that the vestibular system can affect is balance which is important when you are looking at how to teach an autistic child to ride a bike. Knowing where certain body parts are and how they move and where they are in relation to the earth’s surface are vital senses to be in control of when riding a bike, and issues with the vestibular system are often the main reasons why a lot of autistic children never learn to ride.

If you want to teach your autistic child to ride, common wisdom says that you should not start with a bike which has stabilisers on – despite this being the ‘accepted’ thing to do. If you put your child on a bike which has stabilisers on, then they are not learning how to balance you are just teaching them how to pedal. Pedalling is often the most difficult skill for an autistic child to master, and so breaking the act of riding a bike down into more manageable steps is often the best way to go – with balance being learnt first before moving to steering and lastly pedalling.

One way to do this is to start your child off on a balance bike at about the age of two – balance bikes being designed with no pedals, sprockets or chains. They are therefore lighter in weight and tend to be smaller than pedal bikes. The pedal bike is powered forward with the child’s feet in a similar way to how people first rode bikes back in the 1800s.

This type of approach is perfect for autistic children as it removes the complex problems associated with trying to balance, pedal and steer all at the same time. All they have to do is focus purely on balancing the bike and the feeling that this produces in their body. In time, most children will be able to learn how to propel themselves forward with enough force for them to be able to balance and coast a little on their own.

If your child is over the age of five and you want to try them on a balance bike, you may struggle as they tend to only be made suitable for up to the age of five. However, you can make your own by finding a bike which is a little small for your child, lowering the seat and removing the pedals.

Teaching a child with autism to ride a bike with a balance first approach could be the most successful way to do so, especially if they are suffering from vestibular autism. As one of the leading autism apps in the UK, App2Vox hopes you have found this guide to vestibular autism helpful – please get in touch if you have any questions.