When we think of our senses, we typically think of five: taste, touch, vision, hearing, and smell. But did you know that there are 3 additional sensory systems that make significant contributions to our ability to develop basic skills and maintain emotional stability in our everyday lives? They are our sense of movement (vestibular), our muscle and joint sense (proprioceptive), and the system that gives us information about bodily sensations and emotional reactions (interoceptive). Together, they provide the brain with information from inside the body.
The vestibular system is responsible for our sense of body rotation, gravitation, and movement. The vestibular system contributes to our position sense in terms of head position. Our proprioceptive system contributes information about the position and our body in space and an understanding of where our body parts are in relation to one another. The vestibular and the proprioceptive systems work with the rest of our senses (sight, touch, vision, hearing, and smell) to provide information to the brain that help us to make “sense” of our world.
There are times when the vestibular system doesn’t function properly or efficiently. When this happens, a child may experience some of the following difficulties. 1) fear of movement or avoiding movement activities, 2) fear of having their feet off the ground or moving backwards, 3) lethargy or low muscle tone (body seems floppy), 4.) difficulty paying attention, 4) constantly in motion, seeking whatever type of movement they can get, and 5) demonstrating thrill seeking behaviors with little awareness of danger.
These types of difficulties can result in many problems at home, at school, and with friends. For a child with gravitational insecurity, a typical day at the park becomes a very scary outing. Climbing will be difficult; the see-saw may be terrifying; the slide is intimidating, and swings are off limits in their mind. The spinning merry-go-round may elicit immediate nausea and or vomiting and the child’s emotional or behavioral responses such as crying, tantrums, bossy manners, or physical aggression, may seem over the top- but they are all the child’s attempts to regain control in a situation that feels very out of control and overwhelming. An infant with vestibular dysfunction may have difficulty falling asleep or may sleep too much. They may be quiet and passive or they may be extremely fussy, demanding to be held all the time or in only specific positions or only by certain people. Problems with vestibular processing are not the same as a medical diagnosis where there is an identifiable medical condition related to vestibular dysfunction such as an ear infection, or vertigo. Nonetheless, these types of problems can cause significant stress and social, emotional and behavioral dysfunction for children and their families.
The proprioceptive system functions primarily through nerve receptors in our joints and muscles. These receptors detect what position our joints are in, for example, are my arms straight up over my head or are they straight out in front of me? Movement and compression or traction of the joints will stimulate the proprioceptive receptors, sending the brain information about where the body is. The job of the proprioceptive system to monitor body position and make ongoing adjustments that refine our movements and actions. The proprioceptive system has a calming and organizing influence on the brain and body and can, at times, override other potentially overwhelming sensations.
Poor proprioceptive function can make it hard for a child to learn new movements. The child may be asked to perform a novel movement such as a new dance step. Without accurate proprioception, this child may think they are performing the proper movements only to be corrected repeatedly by the instructor. This can cause a lot of frustration.
Using the other senses to help the child with poor proprioception, may be helpful. For example, providing hands-on guidance while learning the movement can really a help. Using a mirror or video tapes so the child can watch themselves perform the movement is another way to assist children who have this problem. Repetition of the movement(s) while following a model who performs the same movements at the same time can also be beneficial.
Children need proprioceptive and vestibular input every day. The following are some activities that provide both and by engaging in them your child senses of position, movement and balance can be improved.
Horseback riding, bike riding, jumping on a trampoline, hanging and swinging from a trapeze or Monkey Bars, see-saw, playing basketball, jumping off the couch onto a pile of cushions, jumping into a pile of leaves, playing hopscotch, leap frog, giving piggyback rides, jumping rope, playing tug-of-war, climbing on rocks, rolling down a hill, helping to carry groceries into the house, doing pushups ….. and so many more!
Lastly, the interoceptive system provides sensory information from within the internal organs and deep within muscles and is what is sometimes referred to as the gut-brain connection. This system helps us perceive physical feelings such as hunger, thirst, need to urinate, and nausea among many others, and it is also an integral part of our experience of emotional sensations and our capacity to recognize and respond appropriately to emotions. As one could imagine, dysfunction in the ability to accurately perceive sensations related to bodily functions and emotional state would have significant impact on a child. The interoceptive system is a complex system of its own, we will leave it to another paper to discuss it in more depth.