The Other Senses: Vestibular System

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on the vestibular system, which is a fundamental means of sensing the environment.

What is the vestibular system?

The vestibular system, which starts in vestibular organs in the middle and inner ear, is the first sensation a fetus experiences prior to birth. As we move our heads, the fluid in these organs shifts, giving us feedback about where we are in space. Depending on the efficiency of our vestibular system, we may experience a feeling of balance and gravitational security or a sense of being off balance and in danger of falling. The vestibular system makes our body aware of when we need to make adjustments to maintain balance.

Signs of a Healthy Vestibular System

When our vestibular sense is fully functional, we are secure and organized enough in our bodies to be able to attend and respond to all of the other senses we encounter daily.  A child with a well-developed vestibular sense feels confident and safe during movement activities, even if his feet are off the ground.  She is able to start and stop movement activities calmly and with control.  He is comfortable with climbing, swinging, somersaulting, and jumping –- knowing that his body will adapt and that he will be able to maintain his balance and keep himself from falling or getting hurt.

Signs of Vestibular Disorder

Surprisingly, when a child’s vestibular system is not functioning properly, she may be either under- responsive or overly sensitive to movement. For this reason, many of the symptoms of a vestibular problem may seem contradictory. These symptoms include:

  • Unwillingness to participate in activities that require feet leaving the ground
  • Frequent motion sickness or dizziness
  • Clumsiness or frequent falling
  • Moving with extreme caution
  • Excessive spinning with no reported dizziness
  • Impulsive, risk-taking behavior
  • Preferring sedentary activities
  • Rocking, twirling or frequent head tilting
  • Preferring slouching or lying down to sitting

While one child with a vestibular disorder may fear or dislike any activity in which his feet leave the ground — swinging, sliding, bicycle riding, jumping, or climbing — another child with the disorder may constantly seek these same activities. Also, vestibular dysfunction may cause problems with motor and visual coordination.

Positive Methods to Address Symptoms of Vestibular Disorder

If you suspect your child has vestibular issues, it is best to check with a professional before trying to help. Psychologists and occupational therapists often recommend some of the following activities to improve the situation:

  • Somersaults and cartwheels
  • Jumping rope or jumping on a trampoline
  • Bicycle riding
  • Swimming
  • Gymnastics
  • Lying on the stomach
  • Climbing on the jungle gym
  • Balancing on a curb or balance beam
  • Doing cartwheels or somersaults
  • Playing games like Twister

Directing your child to engage in such play may help her vestibular system to improve greatly. It is essential, however, to work under the guidance of someone with professional training so that you don’t urge your child to overdo activities that may cause physical or emotional discomfort or harm.

The Sense of Smell: Olfaction

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of smell, otherwise known as “Olfaction,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

Smell, much like taste, is a “chemical” sense. While we perceive smell to be a very simple process, there are so many chemical and physical things going on in your body to make it happen. There are over 300 olfactory receptors working in tandem with specific molecular features and receptors to make up what we perceive as the smell of an incoming molecule.

Olfactory receptors often die and regenerate on a relatively regular basis, which is different than other neuron receptors. The sensory receptors that pick up chemicals, called chemoreceptors, get “tired” after a certain amount of time, which is why many times you will be in a smelly room and will forget that the room smells after a while. Once your chemoreceptors are given a chance to recover, they will usually be back to normal.

For example, many studies suggest that over 80% of what we perceive as taste is actually due to how the food smells. As we touched on before, taste and smell go hand in hand when it comes to children becoming picky eaters. Finding out foods that smell good to your child is a good start, as what they smell will ultimately be what they taste when they eat. Making food that smells good is like giving your food to a culinary plastic surgeon: it will be infinitely more appealing if there is a good smell along with it.

A child with sensory processing disorder will have a hard time categorizing foods and other scents into their respective smells. This, just like taste, will often lead to your child being a picky eater, or will make them more likely to avoid situations in which they think they will be exposed to smells that are too much for them to handle.

Children with SPD, or similar diagnosis on the autism spectrum, often smell many objects or complain about things that they think smell bad. This is just like any other sensory overload that your child is experiencing, only they are able to explain to you how it is affecting them. While it is hard for us to perceive how a child is affected by not perceiving how objects are moving, we all know what it feels like to smell something that makes you uncomfortable.

Because we understand where our children are coming from when it comes to olfactory perception, it is important to know our child’s reactions. If they have similar facial patterns or verbal reactions to a certain object or food, it is a good idea to keep them at a distance until they are able to handle being around the object. It is important to remember that while the sense of smell might not seem as important as touch or vision, it can still be incredibly uncomfortable for your child if they are placed in the wrong situation. Always do your best to put them in a situation to succeed, whether that is introducing them to new smells to get them used to new sensations, or placing them in a neutral-smelling environment when you need them to perform a task.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are here for you!

What Is Touch Pressure?

Parents of children with SPD are often looking for ways to improve the lives of their children in every way possible. While it is a very hard concept considering that SPD research is minimal at best, we believe that there are certain methods of therapy that will allow parents to rest assured that they are helping their children as much as possible.

One version of assistance that we see many therapists suggest is “Deep Touch Pressure.” Deep touch pressure is a mode of therapy (or intervention) that has a focus on improving your child’s sensory modulation by reducing their responses to distracting stimuli. As you probably know by now, sensory modulation is a term used to describe the characteristics of a person who over-responds, under-responds, or fluctuates their responses to sensory inputs in a way that is disproportional to the input.

Sensory modulation affects everything from children who struggle to focus on tasks, sit down on a chair, or stay in the same place for a significant amount of time. This lack of focus is not simply your child having a “short attention span”, but it could be your child responding to the stimuli around them instead of staying focused on the task at hand. For example, it might be hard for them to sit down and stay still if they hear all of their peers sitting down, scooting their chairs, whispering, etc.

Children with SPD get distracted by many things, because their bodies respond to stimuli differently than most. As we have touched upon in previous articles, the best way to address this is to help your children form good habits, not to chastise the bad ones.

With that in mind, deep touch therapy focuses on diverting your child’s attention away from the stimuli around them and directing it to the task at hand. One method of deep touch therapy is a “pressure vest,” which can be worn all day. While it might not seem like much, the pressure from the vest will reduce purposeless hyperactivity, self-stimulatory behaviors, and increase balance and stability.

Since children with SPD often have different reactions and perceptions to sensory inputs, having something like pressure vest, a weighted blanked, or a weighted lap pad can neutralize everything that is going on around them and get them to focus on the task at hand. It is not a panacea for all of their struggles, but it certainly helps when it comes to getting them to focus on one thing at a time.

As always, we encourage you to talk to a medical professional before making important decisions like whether you want to engage in deep touch therapy for your child. You need to weigh every option for your loved one, because it is not just your well-being at hand. If you have any questions about where you should go if deep touch therapy doesn’t work, please don’t worry. There are many methods, and every child is different. Stay tuned, we will be back with more soon!

What Is Heavy Work And How Does It Help With SPD?

Proprioceptive input, or “heavy work“, happens when we perform tasks that involve heavy resistance for the muscles and joints. It is absolutely essential for assimilating and processing both movement and touch information.

Heavy work is generally broken down into three types: whole body, oral, and hands. Whole body heavy work includes pushing and pulling (doors, shopping carts, etc), walking, and playing. Oral heavy work includes sucking, chewing, talking, and other similar actions. Hand heavy work includes activities like gripping, squeezing, or fidgeting.

Now that we have the definition of heavy work out of the way, it is important to consider how heavy work helps children (and adults) with SPD. As you already know, SPD is a disorder in which the affected have trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.

Heavy work helps children with SPD get to a “normal” sensory level in many ways. It is important to recognize that there are two main attributes of SPD: receiving and responding to information that the brain sends it. Heavy work gets their bodies and senses used to certain movements, cadences, and levels of exertion so they are able to perform at a better level in the future.

Experts in NYC like to think of heavy work as a training regimen for your children, or a way to gauge how their body responds to different forces. Children with SPD generally have issues responding to the environment around them in the correct way, whether it is closing doors too hard or not chewing food hard enough. By getting them used to activities every day, you will train their bodies to be used to the levels of stress they will encounter daily.

For example, it might be frustrating that your child always breaks the tip of their pencil when they write. Instead of giving them a keyboard to type, it is better to give them different hand heavy works to develop their skills. Once their hands are accustomed to how to respond to all different type of products (pens, markers, etc.), then they will have an easier time with pencils.

This concept applies to children with SPD, as their entire concept of their sensory perception needs to be constantly worked on. Simple tasks like pushing shopping carts or playing with a fidget spinner can help them learn how to interact with their environment properly and without doing any harm to themselves.

Heavy work is the “teach a man to fish” of the SPD world. By letting children do heavy work during the day, you are letting them get more and more accustomed to the world around them and how they perceive it. Instead of coddling them and protecting them from their environment, it is of the utmost importance that you teach them how to do as much as they can.

If you would like to learn more about heavy work, please check out the video below. As always, we encourage you to reach out to us if you have any questions about SPD or how you would introduce a heavy work regimen to your child.

The Sense Of Taste: Gustation

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of taste, otherwise known as “Gustation,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

Taste is the most basic sense refers to the detection of the chemicals that make up food. Taste is sometimes confused with flavor (flavor is actually your taste and your sense of smell working in conjunction with each other to form a perception). Taste is received through sensory organs such as the tongue, the papillae, taste buds, and the receptor cells.

When a food enters the mouth, during the digestion process, saliva is released and starts to break down the food moving the food into the tiny pores and grooves on the tongue where the receptor cells are located. The cells then determine whether the food fits into one of five tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami.

When your child suffers from sensory processing disorder they will have a hard time categorizing foods into their respective tastes. This might cause them to be extremely picky eaters. But there’s a difference between a picky eater and the potential to suffering from nutritional deficiencies due to limited food choices.  Also, there are some who have the opposite problem and crave oral sensory input.

Here are some indicators that your child might have taste sensitivity or enjoy oral sensory input:

  • considered a very picky eater – gag at certain foods, only eat certain brands, become anxious when trying new foods
  • will only eat food at room temperature
  • often finds food too hot or too cold or prefers food too hot or too cold
  • may enjoy extremely bland food or extremely spicy food
  • frequent drooling
  • licks, chews or bites inedible objects

According to Kay Toomey, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical director of SOS Feeding Solutions, current research shows from birth to 8 years, 20% of all kids struggle with food. But taste sensitivity occurs when your child lets eating disrupt their daily life.

There are however some strategies to help make meal time easier for everyone involved.

  • strict routines such as eating at the same time, location, and using the same utensils to help create comfort before meal time
  • parents and siblings should behave as role models
  • respond with praise when they have good behavior especially when they say “no thank you” to a bite
  • food should be served that is easy to manage – cut into cubes or small strips
  • have them help out during meal time such  as preparation, setting the table, and cleaning up
  • have kids play with the food to help get used to the textures
  • incorporate crunchy, chewy, or sticky snacks throughout the day for those who like to chew

An occupational therapist or a dietrician can help you present foods in news ways and make sure that your child is getting everything that they need.

The Sense of Touch: Somatosenory

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Somatosensory,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

The sense of touch is the activation of neural receptors generally in the skin. The sense of touch encompasses many different types of stimuli including but not limited to pain, pressure, tension, temperature, texture, shape, weight, contours and vibrations. Depending on the sensations depends on the type of neural receptor. For example, thermoreceptors respond to temperature, nociceptors respond to pain, and mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical stimuli such as tension, pressure, vibration.

A common misbelief is that skin is the only organ involved with the sense of touch, but in fact, the receptors are spread all throughout the body including muscles, joints, bones, nostrils, throat, tongue etc comprising the somatosensory system.

The sensations travel through the neural pathways to the spinal cord, the brain stem and the thalamus to what is called the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

When your child is suffering from sensory processing disorder and has issues processing touch based sensations, their brains are either receiving “too much” information or “not enough” information.

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving too much information:

  • avoiding touch including hugs from familiar adults
  • distressed during hair cutting or brushing and sometimes washed
  • using fingertips rather than using their whole hand
  • overreaction to being accidentally bumped or touched
  • doesn’t like to be barefoot
  • dislike clothing, hats, mittens, and shoes
  • doesn’t wash hands because it feels unpleasant
  • unable to tolerate food in the mouth
  • doesn’t tolerate toothbrush touching their teeth

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving not enough information:

  • touching people regardless of personal boundaries
  • playing with other people’s hair or clothing
  • pinch, bite or hurts themselves or others
  • doesn’t understand their own strength
  • high pain threshold
  • hit or bang head on purpose
  • throw themselves onto the ground

If you find that your child has some of these indicators, here are a few things that you can do to help them.

  • allow them to fiddle with something that is appropriate and not distracting to others
  • carry squeeze ball or fidget toys with you if they are touching something they are not supposed to be touching
  • have them wear textured clothing
  • sand play, water play, finger paints as sensory output activities
  • give advanced warning to activities that need to be done (like washing hair)
  • use blankets and stuffed animals to help them sleep at night
  • experiment with different foods (for example smooth or crunchy peanut butter)

A tactile disorder should be taken seriously as touch is very important in establishing fine motor skills because they use taste and touch to explore the world around them. Find an occupational therapy who can work with your child.

The Sense of Hearing: Audioception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Audioception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, hearing is about vibration. Sound itself is vibrations that travel through the air, our bodies ability to detect these vibrations is known as the sense of hearing. There are mechanoreceptors are located in the inner ear, pick up these vibrations and pass them through tiny bones called the ossicles and into the cochlea where it is then turned into electrical nerve pulse signals for the brain to interpret.

When someone has Sensory Processing Disorder, their ability to handle sound vibration can either be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive. Hypersensitivity is caused by a malfunction of the stapedius. The stapedius muscle contracts in responses to loud noises to protect our ear drum. When this fails to happen, noises appear much louder and the ability to filter our background noise is difficult. On the other side of the coin, hypo-sensitivity where the child cannot distinguish sounds or looks for louder sounds.

Here are some indicators that your child might be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive to noise:

  • afraid of the vacuum, hair dryers, or toilet flushing
  • overreaction to loud sounds (covering ears, crying, running away or aggression)
  • annoyed or distracted by common sounds (fans, clocks, refrigerators)
  • keeps music, radio or television very loud
  • dislikes crowds
  • makes noise to just make noise
  • makes other people repeat themselves often because of not understanding
  • unable to determine the location of a sound

In some cases, your child might have what is referred to as Auditory Processing Disorder, where they have the ability to hear but struggle to process what they are hearing.

Well known example of this is demonstrated below:

Teacher: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are similar”
Student with APD: “Tell me how a cow and hair are similar”

The primary difference between this and hyper/hypo sensitivity is the problem lies with the understanding of the sounds rather than the volume of the sounds. The number of children with Auditory Process Disorder is estimated between 2-7%.

There are four types of auditory processing disorders:

  1. Auditory Discrimination – the inability to notice or compare between distinct and separate sounds (seventeen and seventy might be hard to distinguish)
  2. Auditory Figure-Ground Discrimination – inability to focus on important sounds in a noisy setting
  3. Auditory Memory – inability to recall what you’ve heard or what was said
  4. Auditory Sequencing – inability to understand and recall the order of sounds or words (for example, hear the number 357 but write down 735).

Here are some indicators that your child might have Auditory Processing Disorder:

  • has trouble following spoken directions
  • easily distracted by noises and background noises
  • has trouble with phonics involved with reading and spelling
  • struggle with oral math problems
  • can’t follow long conversations
  • can’t learn songs or nursery rhymes

When your child is suffering from either hyper/hypo sensitivity or Auditory Processing Disorder it can have a direct impact on their communication, their academic life, and their social skills. If you feel that your child might need help contact a speech and language pathologist or your school psychologist.

The Sense Of Sight: Ophthalmoception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of sight, otherwise known as “Opthalmoception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, sight or vision happens when the eye’s photoreceptors focus and detect visible light in the retina. This then generates an electrical nerve impulse creating various colors, hues, and brightness forming shapes.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the eye: rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to light and cones help distinguish colors. The neurons take the image and send it to your brain. The brain then interprets it and alerts you as to what the image is and how to respond.

When someone has sensory processing disorder, their ability to cognitively process information they take in through the eyes (visual perception) is affected. There are 8 different kinds of visual processing errors that can occur:

  • Visual Discrimination (confusing d and b, p and q)
  • Visual Figure-Ground Discrimination (pulling out a shape from its background)
  • Visual Sequencing Issues (difficulty establishing order of words, symbols, or image).
  • Visual Motor-Processing Issues (trouble coordinating movement of body parts)
  • Long or Short-Term Visual Memory Issues (recalling what they have seen)
  • Visual-Spatial Issues (difficulty telling location of objects)
  • Visual Closure Issues (being unable to recognize parts of the whole)
  • Letter and Symbol Reversal Issues (switching letters or numbers when writing – also know as dyslexia, which affects 1 in 5 kids)

Here are some indicators as to whether or not your child might be suffering from visual processing disorder:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Distracted by visual stimuli
  • Squints and rubs eyes
  • Trouble finding things even when it’s right in front of them
  • Headaches after visual stimulating activity
  • Trouble holding eye contact
  • Loving or hating being in the dark
  • Trouble distinguishing between shapes, letter or symbols
  • Trouble with handwriting including but not limited letter reversals, sizing, spacing or alignment of letters
  • Losing place when reading
  • Bumps into things
  • Slow or hesitant with stairs
  • Trouble distinguishing left from right

If you noticed that your child might have any of these warning signs, then there are few activities that you can do to help develop visual skills.

  • Develop visual tracking skills by using moving objects and stationary objects
  • Crawling and rolling on the floor
  • Spot the difference and hidden picture games
  • Emphasis maintaining eye contact when speaking
  • Hot & Cold Scavenger Hunts
  • Balloon volleyball
  • Bubble popping
  • Using a flashlight before going to the dentist (for more information go to our visiting the dentist page)

When your child is suffering from visual processing issues, it can affect their academic life, emotional life, as well as basic life skills. The best places to get help are a pediatric ophthalmologist, pediatric optometrist, behavior optometrist and in extreme cases a neuropsychologist.

Children Who Need Sensory Input To Stay On Task

Fidget spinners are the bane of teachers existence. Yet, to some, it’s helped their students to great lengths. This therapeutic device has many benefits for children who have “sensory seekers.” Some children are considered “sensory seekers” especially if they have things such as ADD, ADHD or autism. When they have things that stimulate them they become more organized, pay closer attention and complete tasks.

The issue is that people who do not suffer from these conditions have been bringing them into class and it has been distracting to themselves and other students, defeating the entire purpose of these devices.

But what should we do about this “fidget spinner crisis” that we have on our hands plaguing schools? Here are a few alternatives that can help those who need stimulation since fidget spinners have been banned in most schools:

  • Sitting on a bean bag chair during desk work will allow the child to bounce around and move without leaving their station
  • Climbing on the monkey bars during recess right before returning to the classroom
  • Responsible tasks such as reorganizing, washing the blackboard, etc, can help make them feel like they have a purpose rather than feeling burdensome
  • Access to a rocking chair as a positive reinforcement
  • Spill proof water bottles especially those who need a sensory input for their mouth
  • Hackey sacks, koosh balls, or any other stress reliever
  • Top of pencil chewers also great for kids with an oral fixation

Keep in mind, that even if there are other ways to help a child with their sensory input needs, other children will either be jealous of their responsibilities or find the latest new gadget and want to have it as well. The key is to balance these two things together and educate parents on what is the right way for their child to behave in the classroom.

Autism – Brief Report On The Effects of Exercise

In 1997, Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek published a report in the Journal of Autism Development Disorder (27[2], 192-201) about the effects of exercise on the self-stimulatory behaviors and positive responding of adolescents with autism.

According to their report, there have been earlier research performed that showed that exercise has had some success in diminishing negative behaviors in populations that have special needs. Based on this research, Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek chose to continue this study on a small sample of children (5 adolescent males around the age of 15) that have autism.

The study had each child complete either an exercise program or an academic program during the school day for 20 days (10 of each type of program). The exercise program included stretching and jogging for 20 minutes while the academic program consisted of the standard curriculum that is provided during a school day. It’s also important to note that the child was in a regular classroom and also in a community workshop switching their environment throughout the test. The data that they collected included the amount of:

  • self-stimulatory behavior in the classroom
  • self-stimulatory behavior in the community workshop
  • correct answers in the classroom
  • correct answers in the community workshop

According to Mitchell and Rosenthal-Malek, the data suggest that in both the classroom and the community workshop, the amount of self-stimulatory behaviors decreased significantly after exercise as opposed to when they were in the academic setting. Other noteworthy results the exercise increased the number of correct answers in the classroom and the overall work produced in the community workshop.

Based on the results of this study, it is highly recommended that there should be an inclusion of exercise programs for adolescent students as part of their mandatory curriculum. However, this is one of many tests on a small sample size. Further testing is required to prove that this would be beneficial for all cases of autism or anyone with sensory processing disorder.