In school we are taught about the 5 senses, in fact (and I’m sure you know this by now) we actually have 8. The Vestibular sense affects movement (if we are moving, how fast we are going, and sense of direction). If you struggle with vestibular sensitivity, you might be quite clumsy. Unlike the other senses which tend to be quite singular in their role, the vestibular system affects everything from balance & coordination to motor skills & self-regulation. Chances are if you struggle with SPD you probably struggle with your vestibular sense.
So What’s It Like?
Well, it changes for everyone and I can only give you my experiences living with vestibular sensitivity (in this case hyper [over] sensitivity, not hypo [under] sensitivity). So in a podcast where we talked about Dyspraxia (find it here), I mentioned how I struggle to ride a bike, due to balance. I get on the bike, lift my feet off the ground, and fall down. (if you’ve seen season 11 of Dr Who, I’m a bit like Ryan – you can read more here).
And it was assumed that I have enough balance to be able to walk, to which Lorraine said, “then you’ve obviously never seen Joel walk” (insert laugh track here because it’s hilarious & true. I cannot walk. Well not in the same way as people who don’t have vestibular sensitivity walk. My walk tends to clumsy and I often have to consciously correct my posture so that I don’t injure myself. I can’t wear certain types of shoes because I will get tired extremely easily. And/or (most likely and) fall over thin air in front of everyone.
So I have Dyspraxia, as a child, it manifested itself differently to as an adult. When I was younger I was constantly falling over, had terrible balance, low muscle tone and hated walking. (I was carried and used a pushchair much longer than my peers). That was down to my vestibular system. Being hypersensitive meant that I was overly aware of what the body was doing. But I found it hard to control.
Before I started school. My parents probably noticed but maybe assumed it was me being clumsy since it really didn’t have an effect on my life (not really). When I started school, however, it started to affect every aspect of my school life. Due to my struggles with motor skills. I found it extremely difficult to hold a pencil and my handwriting was incredibly untidy.
My core muscles were weak and this led to troubles toilet training and lots of bedwetting. Because I was so clumsy, I was terrible at sports and that made me an outcast among my peers. I found school days very tiring, especially homework and after school lessons.
I feel that it was more noticeable and it affected me worse as a child because, in my opinion, we put unfair expectations on children. Expectations to be social and keep up with their peers. When your vestibular system affects everything down to even your handwriting. That is an extremely difficult bar to live up to.
As an adult, people don’t notice my vestibular sensitivity so much, that’s to say that it isn’t as obvious. This is (in my opinion) due to coping mechanisms and different expectations. Let me explain. As mentioned above, you are expected to fit into a school environment as a child, you have to do P.E., you have to do music, you have to do art. As an adult, you have a lot more freedom to just be yourself. Do I still struggle? Yes, but it’s a different type of struggle.
I think the issue is that people don’t care if you can’t tie your laces as an adult, or have untidy handwriting, or fall over thin air, and it’s strange that adults care if you’re a child. But saying that, I do feel that my vestibular sensitivity has got more controlled as I’ve got older and I’m going to tell you why!
So coping strategies are important, if you can set your child up with them early, then they don’t need to learn them alone (like I did for the most part). Most of these will be physical activities to get your child used to their vestibular system and to get them exercising (they might not like P.E. due to it being team sports. IMPORTANT, don’t force them to participate and if they have a meltdown please stop the activity
Squats are great for improving your child’s core strength and helping with low muscle tone, the way that I was taught to do them as a child was with my back against the fall for a few seconds. Don’t do too many with your child and let them guide the exercise.
Handwriting Pens/Erase Pens
So handwriting and erase pens are great for those who struggle with their motor skills, it allows for your child to hold a pen naturally because it will shape their hand for them. Also, the erase pens are great for those who can’t control which way their hands go (writing b as d for example.) The other alternative is a laptop but that might not be allowed in primary schools where they are learning to write.
Jumping Jacks are fantastic for improving balance and are a fun activity to do to music, you can even incorporate them into your child’s dancing (if they enjoy dancing) or set up a Simon Says type activity with all the physical activities mentioned here).
Walking Barefoot On Uneven Surfaces (Grass/Sand)
This is great for a child because it engages their core muscles and their balance, you can promote this by using going to the park or the beach as a reward for good behaviour or doing the exercises above.
Find shoes that allow your child to feel supported and secure, if they have a uniform at school, you can use insoles. In terms of coats and jumpers, ask your child if they feel heavy because if they vestibular sensitivity it might. Remember, what feels normal for another child, might be too much sensory input for yours.
As you can probably tell, vestibular sensitivity is pretty complicated and quite a big topic to handle in one blog. This is just my experience and what has helped me through the years if you want more information on the 8 senses why not consider our knowledge pack:
If you need any more help why not consider joining the Sensory Support Group