What is the Vestibular System?

According to http://www.spdstar.org/basic/your-8-senses, the vestibular system contributes to balance and orientation in space. It is the leading system informing us about movement and position of head relative to gravity. The vestibular system sends signals to the parts of the brain that control our eye movements and that keep us upright. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and contains three semicircular canals. The horizontal canal detects rotation (spinning). The anterior semicircular canal detects forward/backward movement. The posterior canal, detects movement in the frontal plane (sideways) as when cartwheeling. The vestibular system has broad connections in many parts of the brain influencing: Movements of the head, eyes, and posture.

• The ability of the eyes to fix on a moving object while staying in focus.

• Signaling to adjust circulation and breathing when the body assumes a new position.

• Quick reflex reactions related to balancing.

• Controlling head and body motor responses.

How does this system relate to speech and language?

1. We already know that, because it detects movement, the vestibular system is an integral part of motor development and motor planning. This includes the movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw as needed for speech production. More generally, our postural mechanisms (our ability to remain upright against gravity) also directly influence speech motor patterns. Children with apraxia of speech, oral motor challenges, or articulation problems, are examples of children who may have challenges with their vestibular system that impact their postural control, muscle tone, motor coordination, or motor planning.

2. Interpreting the sounds we hear (discriminating between similar sounds, or tuning out background noise, for example), and producing language, requires that the sounds we hear be integrated with movement experience. For example, our purposeful interaction with the environment and our purposeful movement through space, give meaning to the language that we are hearing. To understand the word “up” or “down” it certainly helps if our body has experienced the concept of moving up and down. If children have vestibular system challenges impacting how they discriminate the details of movement, then these challenges may also impact how they interpret or hear sounds and language. They could have difficulty with word finding,listening skills, or interpretation of language, for example, influenced by vestibular dysfunction.

3. The vestibular system is our orienting system (tells us which way is up) and when it dysfunctions we can feel unsafe. This can impact our awareness of sounds, coping mechanisms for loud sounds, and our ability to receive and process auditory information. How well do you listen to or process what others are saying if you are in a state of high arousal (fight or flight)? Children who are fearful of loud noises, who seem to “tune out”, or who don’t respond to sounds (in other words, who seem to over or under-respond to auditory information), may be responding this way, in part, due to a general sense of disorientation or fear resulting from vestibular dysfunction.

How can I support the vestibular system?

While it is always important to seek the advice of an expert if sensory dysfunction is suspected, there are many play activities that can promote healthy development of the vestibular system. These activities include swinging, running, jumping/bouncing, cartwheels and somersaults, merry go rounds, jungle gym equipment, and slides. You can play games on therapy balls, roll down hills, swim, ride bikes, ride horses, or dance. These play activities, and many more hold tremendous importance in the development of the vestibular system. Work with your child to discover what movement is interesting, fun, and comfortable for them and try to incorporate movement into most of your day. There are many ways to combine movement with academics. Children (and adults) have great variation in their vestibular preferences with regard to how much, how fast, and in which directions they like to move. Respect individual preferences and meet your children where they are,gradually helping them to explore a wider variety of movement experiences.

The following sources informed this article: