Autism and the seventh sense. Spinning and swinging.

TwirlIs your child afraid of heights? Does he hate escalators? Get sick every time he travels? Or hate swings or any game that puts him off-balance? Or is he totally the opposite? A child who never gets giddy or travel sick? Who really enjoys the rides at the amusement park? Who’s constantly jumping about or hopping around? One who loves swinging as high as he can?

If so it is likely that his vestibular system is not functioning as it should. This complex system is based in the inner ear and provides the brain with information about movement and balance, as well as space and gravity. That information combines with other sensory input – from the eyes, muscles and joints – thereby enabling us to balance and move with ease.

Anyone with a vestibular dysfunction will have difficulty integrating special awareness, gravity, balance, and movement. And that will show in a number of different ways some of which you may already have observed for yourself. Thus one child may be over-sensitive to movement and will therefore tend to avoid situations whilst others will be under-sensitive to movement, and some will seem to be hyper at times and hypo at others.

Children who are hypersensitive in this area may:

• Fear crawling/walking.
• Wave their arms out to the side or hold them close to the body – to help maintain balance.
• Dislike physical exercise.
• Be uncoordinated, clumsy or awkward – often bumping into things
• Easily lose their balance or stumble/fall.
• Dislike unstable surfaces and have difficulty learning how navigate stairs or to go up and down sloping surfaces.
• May rock or swing gently – as this can help calm his overly-excited vestibular system.

In contrast children who are hyposensitive will generally have an increased need for movement and crave lots of vigorous activity. Thus they will:

• Seek vigorous activity – like twirling, spinning or swinging.
• Like jumping up and down.
• Have no fear of heights at all.
• Make exaggerated rocking movements – swaying from side to side – or forwards and backwards.
• Appear hyperactive – unable to sit still and constantly on the go.

Because the vestibular system is located in the ears sudden loud sounds can cause or increase the symptoms of vertigo, dizziness, or imbalance – and some people may even experience a sensation of fullness in the ears.

Other indications could include:

• Staring at one point fixedly.
• Sticking the tongue out or making facial grimaces.
• Anxiety, panic and social isolation.
• Sensitivity to pressure/temperature changes and even the wind.
• Slurred speech.
• Pain, pressure, or other symptoms with certain dietary changes.

Because balance, movement and learning all go together life can be very hard for some children leaving them lagging behind their peers: and often diminishing their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Top Tips

• Exercises to help strengthen and normalize the vestibular system can be great fun but go at his pace – never force him to do more than he wants.
• Swinging.
• Spinning and twirling games using a balance ball, wobble board or even a rotating chair.
• Take advantage of your nearest park and encourage the child to try different rides.
• Make an obstacle course where he can jump, hop etc.
• Help him learn to ride a bike – using stabilizers where necessary.

NB Some of these exercises can make the hyper-child feel giddy so begin by making them brief. Try to avoid over-stimulating him.

In the classroom

• Have built in rest times
• Let him use a sloped surface for writing.
• Let the child sit as they need to – children tend to work out best to stabilize themselves which may not necessarily mean sitting upright.
• Remember that he may be able to write or sit up but not both together.
• If he needs to support his head on his arm do let him.

Talk to an Occupational Therapist if possible as they may be able to advise you on exercise and will also have access to equipment such as low, wide swings with wide bases that make swinging a low risk activity.

References: http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder/symptoms
http://milesandmarley.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/vestibular-dysfunction-and-sensory.html

Got tips of your own?  Please share them.

 Autism and the sixth sense   Steady on!