Your Body's "Sixth Sense": The Vestibular System
This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
This post is all about the Vestibular system, which may sound boring to the average person, but if you’re interested in child development or psychology then you have to learn about this system!
The vestibular system is like out body’s “sixth sense” but it is more important than all of our other systems. Yes that includes vision. Our vestibular system helps to unify all of our other sensory systems and it give our brain a framework for every area of perception.
Vestibular problems are very common in children with development delays and contribute to a huge range of symptoms that you wouldn’t think would be related. If you have a child who is struggling with any developmental delays, academic problems, social/emotional struggles, behavioral issues, this post is for you.
So let’s jump in. The vestibular system is a small apparatus located in your inner ear. It picks up information about where you are in space and what your head is doing and sends that information to your brain to help you make sense of the world.
This is one of our sensory systems like vision or smell, but there are a few unique things about it. First, this system is always working and it never habituates to the environment. Take our sense of smell as a comparison. If you walk into a room that stinks you will eventually get accustomed to the smell and you won’t notice it. Your brain eventually tunes it out and stops smelling it. Your vestibular system doesn’t work this way. No matter how long you sit or lay in a certain position your brain always know what position you are in. You don’t wake up from a nap and wonder if you are hanging upside down.
Another unique thing about the vestibular system is that it has no specific sensation of its own. Meaning our vestibular system functions apart from our conscious experience of it. The only time we become aware of our vestibular system is when it isn’t working correctly and it aggravates other senses or areas of perception. For example we may feel dizzy or nauseous.
Our vestibular system develops early in pregnancy and it is the primary sense that we use before birth. Keep in mind that ALL of our senses are damped during pregnancy. The baby is encased in womb and suspended in fluid so things like noise, touch and light are all affected by that. Our vestibular system is activated by gravity and the effects of gravity are also dampened because the baby is suspended in fluid.
After birth baby have to adapt to the full force of the sensory world including gravity. We have a LOT of primitive reflexes that are triggered by a change in gravity or head position. This change of position is picked up by the vestibular system and then causes a reaction in the body. This help babies to develop muscle tone, use their eyes effectively, begin to control their body and limbs and much more. Children with retained primitive reflexes pretty much all also have some level of vestibular dysfunction.
Babies rely heavily on these primitive reflexes during their early infancy period. These help them to survive and to build good brain/body connections which provide the foundation of all advanced brain functions like emotion regulation, social awareness and learning.
So what does this mean for older children? When older children grow up with vestibular dysfunction it affects a lot of different areas of perception. Internally their brain is getting mismatched information from all of their sensory systems. This completely throws off their perception of their internal body and their external environment.
These kids live like this all the time so they often aren’t even aware that anything is wrong, because that is their normal. What you see is problems in emotions, behaviors, social relationships and learning.
First you often see problems with balance and coordination. This is an obvious one because the vestibular system helps us react to gravity and control our body in space. Children with vestibular dysfunction are often clumsy and uncoordinated. They may have an awkward gait or difficulty with hand eye coordination.
They also may have a hard time navigating themselves in space. These are the kids bump into things, they stub their toes, spill food on their clothes, get into other people’s person space, they tend to hold their hands out and touch everything when they are walking by. This helps give them another area of feedback for where they are in space. Most kids do this without even knowing why.
A lot of times these kids are very unaware of what is going on around them. They are unfocused or lost in their own world. Sometimes these kids get very stressed out in new environments and may panic if they think they are lost in a store. Even older kids and teens sometimes have a really hard time remembering where the car is parked in the parking lot or which door they came through in a restaurant.
This also translates to a lot of emotional dysregulation. It is common to see a lot of fears, anxieties and insecurities. These kids are literally unstable in their own bodies and this makes it difficult to develop good emotional control. If these kids also have a retained Moro, which is the infant startle response, it is a recipe for big emotional overreactions. Crowded places or being bumped unexpectedly can be extremely dysregulating for these kids.
The next area you see problems in is social awareness. Most of our communication with other people is non-verbal. Up to 90% of our interactions with other are non-verbal. Children who have a hard time understanding their own body language and cues are more likely to misinterpret the body language of others.
You can usually see two type of problems in this area. Some kids tend to be very fearful and avoidant. Social interactions cause a lot of anxiety and they tend to misread facial expressions as more negative. This can lead to avoiding social contact, aggressive social behaviors, oversensitivity and insecurity. You can also see social unawareness. These kids tend to be more flat emotionally, they are uninterested in people around them, and oblivious to what is going on around them. These kids may even be surprised when they get in trouble or someone gets mad at them even though there were a lot of signs leading up to it. Like most things a lot of kids have a combination of both of these types of social reactions.
The last area of impact is academics. The vestibular system provides the foundation of our understanding of space and direction. This is HUGELY important for reading, writing and math. Letters and numbers are all just small variations of shapes going in different directions. There is very little difference between a b, p and d expect a slight change of direction. These letters all combine in a specific order to make words and then sentences and paragraphs. The order and direction of each of these shapes is what makes the difference between scribbles and language.
Basic math concepts are also all based on size, direction and space. Our vestibular system helps us to understand concepts like sequence, orientation and inverse operations in math like addition and subtraction. Children with vestibular dysfunction often rely on memorization rather than concept mastery.
Sometimes kids can hold it together in the early years of school and then things really start to fall apart in upper grades when the work load increases. Often times these kids are seen as lazy or distracted but really their brain is just working with faulty information. It requires a lot more effort to memorize things when you don’t fully grasp concepts. It also means that their brain is using a lot of energy to try and make sense of the world. This can really tank focus and attention.
Getting the vestibular system working properly is absolutely necessary for optimal school performance. It is one of the biggest contributors that I see to academic underachievement. It is also very common in children with developmental delays. Fixing this system is key in getting things to "click" for kids. They need the right tools in order to learn properly and so often time this piece is missing.
If any of this sounds like your child, please visit my website to learn more. www.earlyrootstherapy.com. I have a screening questionnaire on my website that you can fill out to see if this type of therapy is right for your child and I offer free phone consults to review them with you. I hope you learned something helpful!