The Vestibular System

The Vestibular System: The Sense of Balance

The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, helps detect the position and movement of the body in space. It is responsible for maintaining equilibrium of the head, coordination of the head and eyes, balance, gaze stabilization during movement, supporting muscle tone/posture, and detection of movement and speed. Proper development of this system allows individuals to move about their environment safely and efficiently.

Vestibular Processing Dysfunction

Examples of vestibular processing dysfunction include:

  • Vertigo / dizziness
  • Frequently falling, difficulty maintaining balance
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Poor coordination of limbs
  • Seems impulsive, takes unsafe risks
  • Constantly moving

During a sensory integration activity, such as riding a platform swing, it is important to evaluate your individual's level of tolerance with vestibular input. Vestibular dysfunction doesn't need to be "remedied" in every activity, but its role in the ultimate goal should be considered. A well-intended activity can be ineffective if the vestibular input is too low or too high and causes a distraction.

two girls riding on a Sensory SwRing

The SensoryRx Product Profile

Every product we offer features a SensoryRx Product Profile, with an input rating for the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory systems. These are the three main senses engaged when doing movement-based activities like swinging, climbing, jumping, and crashing.

We'll go through a few examples of how you can use the vestibular input rating to determine which sensory swings and activities can suit your needs.

Swings with Low Vestibular Input

In general, swings and toys that offer less movement will be rated as providing low vestibular input. Use swings with low vestibular input if you are trying to minimize distractions and build other skills, especially for individuals who are sensitive to motion and spinning. Or, you can incorporate activities that specifically focus on and gradually build the tolerance levels of the vestibular system. It's all about your goals!

The HearthSong HugglePod Hangout Tent is designed to simply hang and feature minimal (but some) motion, but it can still provide opportunity for movement and socialization if desired. Here's two examples of activities with the tent swing based on the goals for an individual with low tolerance for vestibular input:

A graph explaining this swing's sensory profile

Activity 1: Relax
Use the tent as advertised - hang out and relax! Close the door and window flaps to shut out all sound and light. If enclosure is a concern, try variations of open flaps or remove the tent cover completely. Give a gentle push on the swing or leave it alone and allow natural movement to happen on its own.

Activity 2: Create a Circuit
Getting in and out of the tent swing creates natural motion, so try incorporating it into a circuit / obstacle course. Place an object inside the tent and have the user climb into the tent, grab the object, and bring it to the finish line of the course.

Or make the tent the finish line itself! After going through 3-5 "obstacles" in the course, the user can climb or jump into the tent as the climatic ending with the reward of relaxation.

Swings with High Vestibular Input

Swings designed to rotate or support large lateral motions are often rated as providing high vestibular input. Use swings with high vestibular input for individuals that can be considered "sensory seekers," or those able to at least generally tolerate moderate to high amounts of movement. Swings with high vestibular input often naturally offer higher proprioception input as well, which can be a great win for sensory integration play.

The SensoryRx Saucer Swing is designed for all the spinning and lateral swinging you can give it, making it rated for high tactile input. Here's two examples of activities with the saucer swing:

SensoryRx Rainbow Saucer SwingA graph explaining the saucer swing's sensory profile

Activity 1: Swing Swing
Swing in a lateral or circular motion and engage all three sensory systems. Keep it fresh and try not to do one activity for more than 30 seconds without switching something up. Change positions, change directions, go faster, go slower. Watch closely to not overstimulate the rider by going too long. As we like to say, "pop all the kernels, but don't burn the popcorn!"

Activity 2: Build Stability
Try holding positions on the swing that challenge balance and core strength, such as: on hands and knees, standing while holding the rope, or sitting on the edge with legs hanging over the edge. Watch the rider closely to determine how much swinging to incorporate with those positions.

Final Notes

No matter our sensory differences, we're allowed to have preferences, off days, and a change of heart. Progress is not fast, and it's certainly not linear. We're in this journey together to Find Focus through Movement, and if you have more questions about our products that support the vestibular system, please contact us. We're here to help!

Author Credit

Resources: Casey Dravis, OTD, OTR/L
Writer: Katie Johnson, SRx Brand Manager and Special Needs Parent
Reviewer: Kevin Anderson, PhD, OTR/L, ATP

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