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.

Vestibular seekers may:

  • Seem to be constantly rocking, spinning, swinging arms and legs, or fiddling with objects.
  • Appear to have hyperactivity or behavioral issues due to constant running, jumping, or climbing.
  • Love roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, and spinning in circles, but never seem to get dizzy.
  • Prefer to be upside down and always seem to be hanging off furniture or doing somersaults.

Support seekers by:

  • Encouraging use of stimulating playground equipment such as swings, monkey bars, and slides.
  • Buying sensory-rich toys and gym equipment for home, such as jump ropes, hammocks, sensory swings, and balance beams.
  • Working with an occupational therapist to develop a sensory diet–a set of physical activities that can be done at home and are tailored specifically to your child’s sensory needs.

Vestibular avoiders may:

  • Avoid swings, merry-go-rounds, slides, and other playground equipment.
  • Feel off-balance or unsteady on slanted or uneven floors and tend to move extremely slowly as a result.
  • Become anxious when stepping over gaps in the floor or walking on transparent surfaces.

Support avoiders by:

  • Giving verbal queues regarding your surroundings and properly contextualizing the risks. (“There is a gap in the floor in front of the elevator, but it is smaller than your foot. You cannot fall in. Let’s step over it together.”)

Vestibular discrimination challenges may cause a child to:

  • Appear clumsy/uncoordinated or have poor posture.
  • Have poor depth or elevation perception.
  • Have difficulty determining head or body position and become easily disoriented.
  • Be unable to tell when he’s starting to fall and unable to catch himself.

Support discrimination challenges by:

  • Holding your child’s hand or arm while walking or playing to provide support and grounding.
  • Being cautious and attentive around bicycles, swings, climbing toys, and other playground equipment.