Sensory Spotlight: Vestibular (Balance and Spatial Orientation)

This is the fifth installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The vestibular system is responsible for the body’s sense of balance, motion, and spatial orientation. Children with vestibular processing issues may appear clumsy or hyperactive. They may also have issues tracking objects visually or performing fine motor tasks. 

The vestibular sense is a function of the inner ear and usually works in conjunction with sight. For instance, you’re able to ride in a car without feeling dizzy or nauseous because your vestibular and visual systems are sending matching signals to your brain; motion sickness occurs when these signals become mixed. The sensation of moving up or down in an elevator is an example of your vestibular system working in isolation. You can read more about how the vestibular system works on the STAR Institute’s website.

See below for a quick guide on identifying vestibular seeking, avoiding, and discrimination issues in children.

Vestibular Seekers May:

  • Appear to have hyperactivity or behavioral issues. 
  • Constantly be in motion—running, jumping, spinning, or climbing on furniture, etc.
  • Love being upside down and spinning in circles, but never seem to get dizzy.
  • Engage in fast, impulsive, or unintentionally rough movement while playing.
  • Have trouble concentrating while sitting or be unable to sit still for even short periods of time.

Vestibular Avoiders May:

  • Don’t lift, tilt, or move your child without giving a warning.
  • Hold your child’s hand while walking to provide grounding and support.
  • Use a footstool if your child’s feet can’t comfortably touch the ground while sitting.
  • Provide calm alternatives to playground activities, such as hiking or catch.
  • Teach your child to focus on a static point inside the vehicle to avoid motion sickness.
  • Work on calming strategies and develop a plan for how to exit overwhelming situations.
  • Provide a quiet place to lie down after motion sickness or headaches.

Those with Vestibular Discrimination Disorder May:

  • Appear clumsy or uncoordinated.
  • Have poor posture or jerky, awkward movements.
  • Have difficulty determining their head or body position.
  • Be unable to determine their speed and direction of movement.
  • Have difficulty distinguishing right vs. left and may not appear to have a dominant hand.
  • Be unable to tell when they’re starting to fall and unable to catch themselves in time.
  • Have poor spatial awareness and depth perception.

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