Helping Your Child “Wake Up” His Senses
All learning takes place through one of our 7 senses. Yes, there are more than 5! Aside for taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing, the vestibular and proprioceptive systems play a vital role in learning too.
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and detects motion and body position. This is what informs you if your body is upside down, sideways, or swinging wildly from a bungee cord.
The proprioceptive system feeds information to your brain from your joints and muscles. It’s what allows you to brace yourself for an impact, or prepare to lift a heavy object.
While the first five senses provide us with lots of information from the outside world, the vestibular and proprioceptive systems give us information about our own bodies. That’s why trouble with processing this information can lead to some great discomfort, unusual behaviors, and trouble focusing and learning.
Last week we described a child whose system is in a state of under-arousal. This is the child whose brain is not receiving enough information through his senses, leading him to seek out intense sensory experiences. You may see this child rubbing his head or body against objects, squeezing into tight spaces, or spinning in circles. His or her brain is under-fed sensory information and is trying to get more input to reach a state of equilibrium.
For many children, and certainly for children with autism, regulating the sensory experience is the key to improving brain function and activity. That’s why a sensory diet is a critical part of any intervention plan. Your child’s sensory diet is developed with your team through experimentation, trial-and-error, and informed clinical opinion. The purpose of the sensory diet is to “wake up” your child’s sensory input system to regulate information intake so that he can:
- feel comfortable in his own body
- allow sensory experiences to be processed by the brain
- build neuron connections (learn!) based on sensory experiences
With these goals in mind, remember the number one rule for your sensory diet: these experiences MUST be pleasurable for your child! If they are not, stop immediately. Anxiety and distress shut down the brain’s ability to process information, which is the opposite effect of what we are trying to accomplish.
For children with autism, the effects of a sensory diet, combined with research driven practices, such as ABA, can be astonishing. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to help children with autism begin to interact and communicate with the help of these interventions.
Here are a few activities to experiment with, each designed to help regulate a specific system.
Joint compressions: Compress your child’s joints at the wrists, elbows, shoulder, ankles, knees and hips. This provides deep input to the proprioceptive system.
Jumping: If your child is capable of doing it, jumping also compresses the joints and helps regulate proprioception.
Roll up: For strong tactile input, use a stretchy blanket and wrap the child from the shoulders down, just as you might swaddle an infant. Let him twist and wriggle his way out and cheer him on as he does it.
Brushing: You can purchase a sensory brush or just use one with a firm yet soft bristle. Brushing provides tactile input.
Deep pressure touch: Another form of tactile input, the deep pressure touch is likely to be much enjoyed. Anything from a tight hug to a deep pressure massage fall under this category.
Swinging: Hold your child in a prone position on swing from side to side. You can make this more fun by singing or playing “airplane”. Another way to swing your child is to have him lay in a blanket as two adults swing the blanket at either end. Swinging provides a lot of input to the vestibular system.
Spinning: You don’t need to spin in tight dizzying circles to provide input to the vestibular system. Consider games like ring-around-the-rosie to give the child a spinning experience. If the dizzying spin is preferred, then by all means, do as much as you can handle!
Rocking: My favorite way to do this is to sit on a chair and have the child on my lap facing me. I then sing some of the child’s favorite songs, and have the child rock all the way backward until his head is near the ground, before lifting him up and rocking him in the other direction. Rocking wakes up both the vestibular and proprioceptive system. Because the child is participating in the activity using his leg, stomach, and back muscles, it is a workout for both the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
Providing your child with the sensory input s/he craves can be a very rewarding experience. You’ll be working hard, but having a lot of fun at the same time, and your child’s progress is his way of thanking you.
Chaya Glatt, Special Instructor