This is part four of a series where I am sharing everything I know on the subject of sensory needs, gleaned from my experience as a Special Needs parent. To start at the beginning, click here to go to Part 1.
Today we are talking about the sixth sense (Nothing to do with the Bruce Willis movie, sorry!) and the seventh sense that are important to know about if you are supporting individuals with Special Needs/sensory sensitivities. I find these particularly interesting.
I would not have labeled myself as having sensory issues before my son’s Autism diagnosis, but after learning about all of the sensory needs and helping him, I have come to realize that I very much struggle with these last two senses: Vestibular and Proprioceptive. In very basic terms, these are the two senses that control how balanced, coordinated, and athletic you are. (Yeah… let’s just say I was never an athlete… or a dancer… or anyone you’d want walking too close to your toes.)
Vestibular (Balance & Spatial Awareness)
The vestibular sense refers to body functions that are controlled by the Vestibular System in the inner ear and the connection between the inner ear and the brain: balance and the eye movement that creates spatial awareness. (Spatial awareness in the ability to track 3D objects through space. Many people would refer to this as depth perception and hand-eye coordination.)
Have you ever had an ear infection that caused you to feel dizzy, off-balance, and even nauseous? Then you have experienced what it is like to have your Vestibular System disrupted.
Individuals with an under-responsive vestibular system need to train and practice to increase their level of balance and spatial awareness. Children with vestibular under-responsiveness may lag behind their peers in walking, running, throwing and catching. Adults with an under-responsive vestibular system may be “accident prone,” and likely to fall. It is worth noting that the vestibular system weakens with age, which is why seniors require extra support.
An over-responsive vestibular system can be the cause of vertigo (that sick feeling that the room is spinning).
If a sensory-seeker craves vestibular sensory input, they will enjoy activities that challenge their balance and depth perception, and will typically excel at sports. Someone who seeks vestibular input does not require therapy or therapeutic items because this craving does not hamper their every-day life. They are simply “athletic,” and can get what they need by playing a variety of sports, like baseball, football, tennis, squash, etc…
Things that Help Develop & Support the Vestibular System
- Physical Therapy
Consult your doctor to receive a referral.
- Vestibular Exercises
A Physical Therapist is your first source for a list of home exercises that will work for you. There are also a number of exercise videos on YouTube that may help.
The back and forth rocking sensation helps develop vestibular awareness. Many people develop their vestibular awareness in the rocking chair on mom’s lap as an infant. People that require more development can use a variety of rocking devices:
Similar to rocking, this sensation gives the inner ear a workout! Most public parks have swings for free public use, however a therapy swing may be in order if: the individual has balance issues or a physical disability that makes standard swings too dangerous; the individual is fully grown and no longer fits on a playground swing; you live in an area where outdoor swings are seasonal, due to weather; or the sensory need is so strong that you want one in your home at all times.
The sensation of “wobbling,” (unpredictable weight shifts and being slightly off-balance) can also help strengthen the vestibular system.
Proprioceptive (Movement & Force)
The Proprioceptive System refers to the connection of signals between the brain, joints, and muscles. The proprioceptive sense allows a person to move about without consciously thinking about it. Rather, the brain, muscles and joints engage in a constant conversation on their behalf. The muscles and joints send feedback to the brain about what is happening in the environment, and the brain processes that information and sends a response back telling the muscles and joints what to do and how to do it. The Proprioceptive System is responsible for how much pressure or force is applied when we do an action, causing a person to be “rough,” or “gentle.” (Something toddlers universally seem to struggle with as their Proprioceptive System develops.)
Someone with an under-responsive Proprioceptive System will have difficulty moving in a fluid, normal-looking way. Funnily enough, one of the tests medical practitioners use to measure someone’s Proprioceptive System, is a “Field Sobriety Test” (walking a straight line, standing on one foot, touching the tip of the nose with tip of the finger, etc…) that Police Officers use on suspected impaired drivers, because the same physical skills that are impaired by substances are impaired when the Proprioceptive System is not functioning optimally.
Proprioceptive sensory-seeking looks like a preference/enjoyment for gross motor activity. Individuals may enjoy sports like weightlifting or boxing, may enjoy manual labor jobs that require hard work and heavy lifting, and enjoy deep pressure in the form of massages and big bear hugs.
Things that Help Develop & Support the Proprioceptive System
- Physical Therapy
- Occupational Therapy
An Occupational Therapist can point a person to devices that will assist them in their day-to-day life
- Practicing Yoga or Tai Chi
Which improves balance and muscle strength
- Deep-Tissue Massage
To stimulate muscles, or for enjoyment by those that seek deep pressure
- Wilbarger Therapressure Brushing
This is a therapeutic technique that involves firmly running a soft brush down the limbs and body to stimulate the muscles. This can be helpful for clients that become agitated with a lack of movement/input. An Occupational Therapist can teach parents and caregivers the correct way to do this therapy in a single session. When my son was very young, his Educational Aide would use this quick form of input when he showed signs of being frustrated between recesses.
NASA has discovered that vibration therapy helps prevent muscle and bone density loss in space. Some therapists apply this principle to stimulate muscles during Physical Therapy. Vibroacoustic Therapy items (included in my post about hearing) are a gentle way to introduce vibration at home.
- Compression Clothing
Clothes that simulate a tight, hugging sensation all day long. Hands down, the best compression clothing we have ever tried with my son is Jettproof brand, created by an Autism Mom from Australia. These are absolutely 100% worth the extra time they take to ship! Their collection of compression tops, shorts, bodysuits, and more can be worn discretely under clothing and provide continuous comfort for sensory-seekers.
- Weighted Blankets or Compression Bedding
To provide pressure input for sensory-seekers that allows them to relax, remain calm, and sleep.
- Compression Therapy Items
My family can definitely vouch for the Pea Pod! My son would crawl in with a blanket and rest/read for hours after an overstimulating day. It also rocks back and forth, making it a 2 for 1 therapy item for both proprioceptive and vestibular input.
Give the muscles a workout with some resistance feedback.
- Heavy Work
Lifting and moving heavy objects, or bodyweight exercises provide deep input. Many items that help are exercise/recreation equipment, so you don’t have to pay extra for the word “therapy” on the box.
And there you have it! Seven senses and how to develop or aid them. I hope this information has been helpful for anyone who works with Special Needs children/adults; or who work with children in general, many of whom may not yet have a diagnosis, but are experiencing sensory issues.
And maybe there are even people out there like me who have made it to adulthood with sensory struggles that you thought were just “quirks.” I would love to hear from you in the comments!
P.S. I have combined these four posts into a permanent resource page on my website. Easier to find, easier to share. View it HERE.
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**I am not affiliated with Jettproff, but highly recommend their products!