When a Treadmill Isn't Enough: The Need for Vestibular Inputs

#autism #adultautism #autismregulation #autismcalming

Ever wonder why some people love to run or ride a bicycle but won't use a treadmill or a stationary bicycle? Isn't it the "same" activity? Is it only a matter of wanting to be outside -- or is it something more?

One of the 8 physical senses is the vestibular sense. This is our sense of movement through space. We receive vestibular input when the fluid in the inner ear moves. The moving fluid sends signals to the brain that transmit information about the direction and speed of the body through space.

Everyone has some sensory processing preferences, but certain groups of people with have stronger needs for or avoidance of sensory inputs (like small children, those with sensory processing disorder, or those on the autism spectrum).

Some avoid vestibular input because their nervous system over-reacts such that movement causes feelings of dizziness, imbalance, and/or nausea. Others seek more vestibular input in order to regulate themselves (regulate means to get to a state of feeling both attentive and calm at the same time).

How does a person get more vestibular input? -- through activities such as riding a bike (sometimes down a steep hill), riding a roller coaster, jumping from a diving board, running, spinning, swinging, rocking, pacing, or hanging upside down.

I was recently at a crowded activity waiting in a long line that curved through narrow hallways. There were many children and parents in line, and the noise and close quarters were difficult to handle. A boy next to me (perhaps 9 years old) stood next to his mother (she was talking to a friend). He had very little space to stand quietly. Soon, he began to shake, shake, shake his head back and forth, then pause. Shake, shake, shake and pause.

What was he doing? He was getting vestibular input to calm himself so he could wait quietly in line. Unfortunately, most people don't know about vestibular input. Not surprisingly, his mother told him to "stop that." So, like many adults, she was asking him to stand quietly AND to stop his body's strategy for waiting calming in a crowded, loud area.

What's the difference between running on a treadmill and running down the road? Vestibular input! It can be a very important part of calming and paying attention for some. The better we can recognize when this is the case, the more often we can say, "Wow! What a great strategy (shaking your head) to stay calm and wait in line. That must feel good to your body." Or we could say, "I understand why you don't want to use the treadmill. How can we help you get more of what your brain needs? How about running around the school track or swinging on the school playground?"

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©2021 by Theresa Regan