Slow learning and poor behavior can sometimes be explained by inadequate sensory integration (SI) within the child’s brain. For most kids, appropriate integration of the senses happens naturally through ordinary everyday experiences. Though no one knows what exactly causes sensory processing disorders, with an understanding of SI you may see a new way of looking at some of your child’s behaviors and realize that SI dysfunction can occur with the finest of parenting and upbringing.
If your child also has a fear of swinging, avoids escalators and elevators and becomes fearful with any change in head position, such as when being tilted backwards or upside-down during roughhousing, then he or she may be gravitationally insecure. Gravitational insecurity is a sensory integration issue which causes a child to react to movements in an extreme manner. Our relationship to gravity is our most important sense of security, and is linked to our vestibular system. These particular observable behaviors are manifestations of a hyper-responsive vestibular system, which means your child’s gravity receptors are extra sensitive. A child with gravitational insecurity processes the pull of gravity as threatening, so everyday movement experiences, such as stepping down from a curb or getting into and out of a car can be scary. Your child becomes very anxious with these activities because he or she perceives small movements to be larger than they actually are. It is important to respect to your child’s reactions in various situations, and not treat them as an emotional or behavioral problem, as this will likely just make things worse. See tips from #2 about what you can do to foster a healthy vestibular system, in general, and see below for ways to help your child who displays gravitational insecurity.
We all know that kids fall down. Bumps, bruises, and scratches are part of childhood as kids explore their environment, trying new things and learning new skills along the way. However, clumsiness may be a one of the many possible signs of an under-reactive vestibular system. Some other signs include low tone, poor posture (slouching), and difficulty using two hands at once for activities such as riding a bike, using scissors, or tying their shoes. You may have also noticed that it seems like your kid can spin and spin without feeling dizzy. The vestibular system is thought to be the primary organizer of sensory information. With a system that acts as it should, the constant pull of gravity generates a constant sensory flow in which all other sensory inputs are superimposed upon. This system is in charge of reacting to every change in head position, and is interdependent on other sensory systems to give us an idea of where our body is in relation to space. While problems with vestibular processing can be very subtle, they can have a large negative impact on learning. Your child might be very smart, yet still has difficulty with schoolwork. The reason your child experiences difficulties with writing or other academic learning is because higher-level brain functions rely on the proper processing from movement and gravity. Luckily, there are activities you can do at home to facilitate a vestibular system that develops and functions appropriately. To help your child master the basics, start with the sensorimotor abilities listed below!
Your child may be experiencing a decreased ability to modulate sensations coming in from the environment. Tactile sensations come in as sensations derived from stimulation to the skin. For some kids, an unexpected light touch can elicit a flight-or-flight reaction. This is known as tactile defensiveness, meaning that a child has a pattern of negative emotional responses to certain types of tactile stimuli. While most kids would not consider, for example, the tag of their shirt to be irritating or painful, this touch can actually be perceived as a very real threat to your child’s nervous system. Other things you may have observed in your child is an avoidance of going barefoot, getting their hands or hair washed, and shrugging off hugs and kisses. He or she may even be having trouble playing with other children due to their overly sensitive tactile system. Luckily, there are simple things you can do at home to help your child process incoming tactile sensations more appropriately. Interestingly, deep pressure is the type of enhanced tactile sensation most commonly recommended for decreasing tactile defensiveness in toddlers and children.
So for example, if your child is experiencing sensory issues with hair washing (he/she hates having his/her hair cut or washed), try giving a deep pressure scalp massage beforehand. This type of pressure touch is less threatening than a light touch and should have a modulating effect that will last through cutting or washing. The most important thing you can do is acknowledge that your child’s problem is real and not just ‘poor behavior.’
While it’s very possible that your child may have ‘selective hearing’ at times, it’s also possible that some of this behavior you’re seeing is due to problems with auditory processing. This often manifests as problems following directions, confusion in noisy places, sensitivity to loud sounds, a short-attention span, and a delay in responding when spoken to. You may have noticed that your child ‘tunes out’ during group or social activities and easily becomes overwhelmed or distracted by laughter, crowds, or cheers.
It has been found that the auditory system and vestibular system are closely linked, thus many children with speech and language problems often show signs of inefficient vestibular processing. The best way to help your child with auditory processing difficulties is to build the sensorimotor foundations needed so this process to develop optimally. By fostering your child’s lower level processes so they can become more efficient, you will aid the development of higher-level cognitive functions, like speech and language. Follow tips from #2 to foster a well modulated vestibular system, and see below for tips help your child better process auditory information.
Is your child constantly moving their body or trying to touch everything in their environment? Learn more about calming your sensory seeker!
Learn more about sensory processing disorder symptoms in our Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist
At NAPA Center, we believe in creating individualized programs that address every child’s specific needs across a range of different therapies. Every child is unique, which means implementing unique therapy programs is the only way to help them truly reach their full potential. Contact us today to learn more about our process and our track record of results.