What is vestibular autism?

When we talk about vestibular autism it is usually in the context of sensory integration. Sensory integration is concerned with the information that humans take in and use to interact with the environment around them. Most of us are aware of the four main senses – sight, hearing, taste and smell, but there are other less well-known sensory systems that also have a role to play in sensory integration – and one of these is the vestibular system.

 

 

You may not realise it, but movement can have an effect on how alert a person is. Think about the example of a parent rocking a baby to sleep, they will usually do this in a gentle side to side manner rather than a jerky up and down one. Or how about a teacher wanting to wake their class up after a heavy lunch – they might suggest 10 jumping jacks to kick start their systems. Most children find running around in circles to be exciting and fun. Adults might run or swing from side to side on a hammock to change their level of alertness. These are all examples of how our brains differ, and show that each and every one of us seeks out different degrees of vestibular stimulation.

 

What is the Vestibular System?

We all have vestibular sense organs located in our inner ears. They respond when our body changes position – if we do a roly-poly for example – or we accelerate or deccelerate – such as when we are on a roller coaster. The vestibular response goes to the brain to be processed and this then:

  • generates a muscle response, so that we stay upright
  • tells our reflexes to shift out weight if we feel like we are over balancing
  • co-ordinates our movement and visual sensations so we can discriminate what we are seeing

Vestibular sensations help our brain to develop as tiny crystals located in our ears, respond to our head movements as gravity pulls down on us. The fluid found inside the semi-circular canals in the inner ear also respond to changes in direction of movement and speed. All of this tells us how fast we are moving and exactly where we are in relation to the ground.

As a developer of communication apps for nonverbal children, we know that many children seek out vestibular stimulation without realising it, as they like to run and jump, swing, ride their bikes or even roll down a hill. They also develop muscle strength and tone while they are taking part in vestibular activities as they are moving their bodies in response to gravity, and therefore they are building a foundation for developing complex motor skills as well.

 

The Vestibular System and Autism

If children with autism also have a vestibular disorder they may fear movement, take part in excessive movement and can also seem clumsy as well. Some ways in which they may be affected could be:

  • Motion sickness – they may not suffer from it at all, or suffer from it terribly
  • Spinning – one child may be able to spin for hours with no effect, whereas another may spin slightly and have to stop as they feel sick
  • Claustrophobia – children may not like to be in a room with a lot of people as they feel the room is caving in on them, while other children are not affected by this at all and love being in a crowd

Let’s take a closer look at how balance can be affected in children:

If they are under-sensitive:

  • They may need to rock, spin or swing in order to get the sensory input they need

To help with this you could do activities such as rocking horses, playing on a roundabout, catching a ball or swinging with them.

If they are over-sensitive, they may experience:

  • Car sickness
  • Difficulties with activities where the head is not upright or they have to take their feet off the ground
  • Difficulties with sports activities where they need to control their movements
  • Difficulty stopping quickly during an activity

You can help them with this by breaking down activities into smaller steps and use visual clues such as a finish line.

 

What Vestibular Exercises Can You Do With Your Children

Watch your child carefully when you are doing these activities, and slow down if they are finding them too overwhelming. You should also speak to any professionals involved with your child to ensure the exercises you choose that are appropriate for your child and their development goals.

  • Balance board. Perfect for kids of all ages, especially those with little feet. They are a great way to improve balance and co-ordination
  • Bike riding. This is one of the most popular vestibular activities for kids, but not all children find it easy – especially if they struggle with balance or coordination. You may want to start them off with a balance bike before introducing peddles
  • Indoor swinging. Indoor swings are a great tool to use with kids who have difficulty sitting still while at the same time helping them with their body awareness. They can be a great calming down space when a child is in full tantrum mode
  • Rocking chair. If you child actively seeks out vestibular activities you may want to invest in a rocking chair as it will enable them to get the stimulation they need while also having a calming effect
  • Scooter board. These are a great way to help a child develop their balance and coordination, and there are lots of great activities you can enjoy with them
  • One simple but effective way to help your child develop their balance and coordination is to practice skipping with them.
  • Trampolines are a great way for the whole family to have fun together while also helping your child to develop their vestibular system

If you are interested in finding out more about our text to speech system, and how it can help your autistic child to communicate, please contact us on 0161 974 4700.