The human body has 8 sensory systems which give us information about the environment and our place within the environment.
The 5 most commonly known sensory systems include:
- Tactile – the sense of touch
- Visual – the sense of sight
- Auditory – the sense of hearing
- Gustatory – the sense of taste
- Olfactory – the sense of smell
The 3 less commonly known sensory systems include:
- Vestibular – the sense of our head position in space
- Proprioception – the sense of knowing where our body is in space, this information comes from our muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments
- Interoception – the sense of the physiological condition of the body (hunger, thirst, pain, temperature, the need to go to the bathroom, etc.)
Today we are going to talk more about the vestibular system. The vestibular receptors are located in our inner ear. The receptors include the 3 semicircular canals (anterior, lateral and posterior) and the otoliths (utricle and saccule). The semicircular canals pick up rotary movement and the otoliths pick up linear movement.
The vestibular system answers 2 basic life questions:
- Which way is up?
- Where am I going?
Any movement of the head in any direction (up and down, forward and back, side to side, diagonal and rotary) activates the vestibular system. 25% of the vestibular information received goes directly to the cerebellum which is responsible for balance and posture. The other 75% of vestibular information goes to the brainstem via the vestibular nuclei which then connects to many other parts of the brain including:
- Reticular formation – arousal, orientation, regulation & attention
- Spinal cord – postural alignment and control
- Oculomotor nuclei – head orientation & stability for oculomotor (eye) control
- Autonomic centers – gravitational impact on cardiovascular, visceral & respiratory control
- Cerebral cortex – spatial orientation & body movement
Since the vestibular system has so many connections in the brain it is very important that the vestibular system is functioning well. In many of the children that we see in Occupational Therapy their vestibular systems are not functioning optimally. Many children have an under-responsive system or an over-responsive system. A child with an under-responsive system may be able to spin for hours without getting dizzy or sick. A child with an over-responsive system may get dizzy or sick with even the slightest movement.
In Occupational Therapy one of the goals is to help the vestibular system work optimally so that sensory information is processed correctly in the brain to allow the eyes to work well, the ears to work well as well as the many other areas that have been discussed above.
References: From Eyesight to Insight: Visual & Vestibular Assessment & Treatment
What do OTs (Occupational Therapists) do? Many people have no idea what an OT is when I tell them what I do! Many people think that we help people get jobs, but that is not the case (mostly anyways!). OTs focus on the areas of self-care, productivity and leisure. So depending where an OT is working they are helping people with very different things. OTs are trained in the areas of anatomy & physiology, neurology, child development, mental health, counselling, older adult disabilities, among other areas.
In acute care (hospitals) we focus a lot on self-care, helping people to be independent in their basic daily activities such as getting themselves dressed, having a bath, preparing a meal or moving around their homes/community. We prescribe equipment and provide education about how they can become more successful completing their activities of daily living in a safe manner. An independent study by health policy researchers published in Medical Care Research and Review (Rogers, Bai, Lavin, & Anderson, 2016) found that “occupational therapy is the only spending category where additional spending has a statistically significant association with lower readmission rates” for the three health conditions studied: heart failure, pneumonia, and acute myocardial infarction. Yay OT!
When working with children as we do at Bright Horizons OT, the focus looks very different. We use play as a means to achieving the child’s/family’s goals. In order to achieve the goals, we either use remediation (treating the underlying deficit) or compensation (adapting activities or environment) to make the child more successful in their everyday activities. The goals of OT can be many different things, here are some examples of general goals:
- Increase ability to pick up small objects and release them
- Increase ability to use both hands together (e.g. stabilizing the paper while writing with the other hand, holding a jar while using the other hand to twist the lid, etc.)
- Increase handwriting legibility and/or speed
- Increase accuracy while cutting with scissors
GROSS MOTOR/CORE STRENGTH:
- Increase core strength/postural stability in order to increase gross and fine motor skills
- Increase the child’s support while sitting in a chair at school (proper seating in order to maximize their ability to complete school activities)
- Making adaptations in gym class/sports/leisure activities to increase participation
- Increase self-care abilities such as getting themselves dressed, doing up buttons, zippers, tying their shoes, etc.
- Provide adaptive equipment/education to help make bathing independently or with assistance easier
- Increase self-feeding abilities (using a spoon, fork, knife, open cup, straw cup, etc.)
- Expand the number of foods a picky eater/problem feeder will eat
- Decrease sensitivities to sensory input (lights, sound, touch, etc.) and/or make environmental adaptations to help them cope with these sensitivities
- Increase the child’s ability to engage in hair brushing, hair washing, hair cutting, etc. for those that are sensitive to these activities
- Make adaptations/find clothing that the child will wear without being bothered by tags, seams, fabrics, etc.
- Increase on task behaviour in children who have attention difficulties (teaching self-regulation skills)
These are just some examples of the things that are addressed when you see an OT. One of the greatest parts of our job is we get to look at such a wide variety of areas!
In the past year I have been going full steam ahead in my continuing education! My latest education has been on Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). I completed the TheraPeeds “Treating Auditory Processing Disorder” course and I loved it, just like I love all of Julia Harper’s courses. I’m starting to sound like a groupie! Haha. But she uses physiology to back up all of her assessments and treatment which I love.
What is APD? Auditory processing is what we do with what we hear. Children with APD do not have a problem with their hearing, they have a problem with how the sound is processed in their brain. “We don’t hear with our ears, we hear with our brain.” Sound information comes into our ears, moves through the outer, middle and inner ear to the lower brainstem, to the upper brainstem, to the midbrain and finally to the cortex. In children with APD somewhere along that pathway the information is not processed as it should be. The type of APD depends on where the breakdown of processing occurs in the brain. Most of the time the breakdown occurs sub-cortically or below the cortex (i.e. lower brainstem, upper brainstem or midbrain).
Audiologists are responsible for diagnosing APD, along with information from SLPs and Educational Psychologists. Then you may be wondering where does an Occupational Therapist come in? Well one of our areas of specialty is sensory processing. Auditory information is sensory information. As OTs we can use our sensorimotor knowledge to help treat APDs.
Treatment for APD focuses on sensorimotor and auditory (sound) activities. Since most of the APDs occur below the level of the cortex we can use sensorimotor activities to ensure that the proper wiring is set up in the brain to allow the messages to get through.
Please contact me with any questions or if you are interested in learning more about how OT can help your child with Auditory Processing Disorder.
Over the past couple of months I have been focusing a lot on continuing education related to sensory processing. I came across Julia Harper’s online courses on sensory processing and was hooked immediately! Julia is a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker. She provides so much physiology to back her treatment, it makes me excited! I have completed part 1 (modulation) and part 2 (self-regulation) of her courses and I know I won’t stop there. Here are a few of the basics that I have learned:
- There are four different types of sensory processing disorders:
- Modulation – expressed behaviourally
- Self-Regulation – expressed with inconsistent behaviour and skills
- Postural & Discrimination – expressed with poor quality and/or quantity of skills
- Integration & Praxis – expressed with skill refinement deficits
- The type of sensory processing disorder is determined by where the breakdown occurs. That is, where the sensory information gets stuck and is not processed appropriately (lower brainstem, upper brainstem & cerebellum, midbrain & cortex).
I would highly recommend any Occupational Therapist working with children take Julia Harper’s courses. They are a good value for your money, especially since they are online and you don’t have to pay for flights and hotels!
The website is: Therapeeds
Do you have a child or know a child who loves to chew on everything? There are some kids who love to chew on anything they can get their hands on – shirt collars, shirt sleeves, hair, nails, pencils, erasers, papers, toys, power cords, you name it and I’m sure there’s a kid who’s chewed on it! Often these children don’t even notice they are doing it. They naturally gravitate to these items and put them into their mouths without even thinking about it. It can be calming to children (and adults) to chew so you may notice that they do it when they are in difficult or stressful situations or when they are tired at the end of the day.
Mouthing objects is a part of the normal developmental sequence. One of the reasons babies and toddlers put objects in their mouths to learn about them. As children get older many of them will stop mouthing objects but there are others, especially those with Autism, developmental delays or sensory difficulties, that will continue. As children get older it becomes less socially acceptable to mouth objects and can be a hazard to their health if they are chewing on dangerous objects.
Here are some tips to help curb chewing on everything and maybe save some clothes!
- Gum – if the child is old enough allow them to chew gum as it can provide the same calming effect
- Chewlery/Pencil Toppers – provide the child with jewellery or pencil toppers that are made to be chewed on
- Electric Toothbrush – increases the amount of proprioceptive input to the mouth which can be calming and fill the need for that deep pressure in the mouth
- Heavy Work – provide the child with daily heavy work activities (blog coming soon) which gives the body the proprioceptive input that they may be seeking through chewing
Do you struggle to get your child dressed every morning because they refuse to put anything on? Does your child hate tags, seams and uncomfortable fabrics? I’ve compiled a list of online stores that cater to kids that are sensitive to clothing. All of these stores either have Canadian retailers or will ship to Canada.
Sensory Smart Clothing Co.
- focuses on sensory friendly clothing
- Canadian business run out of Port Moody, BC
- line of kids wear that is sensory friendly (no tags, flat seams, ultra soft bamboo fabric and a comfy loose fit) that was designed for kids with tactile sensitivities
Smart Knit Clothing
- seamless socks, underwear, bralettes & compresso tees
Canadian Retailer: www.toolsforkids.ca
Independence Day Clothing
- created for children with Autism and those who are sensitive to clothing
- no zippers, buttons or tags
- flat seams
- clothing is easy to put on and can be worn frontwards, backwards and inside out
- comfortable clothing for girls
- soft, comfortable clothing
Lucky & Me
- soft, smooth fabrics that are free of harmful chemicals
- clothing designed by a mom who struggled to find comfortable clothing for her daughter