This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
Earlier in this post series, we talked about our sense of interoception and how we have far more than the five senses that are commonly known. Today we’re going to talk about another lesser known sense, the vestibular sense. The vestibular sense is the sense that allows us feel changes in head position or having our feet off the ground which dictates our senses of balance and equilibrium. Our vestibular sense comes from a tiny part of the middle ear known as the labyrinth. This small part of our bodies senses changes in head positioning and contributes to our sense of where we are in space.
As with all our other senses, autistic people can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to their vestibular sense. People who are hypersensitive may be wary of ordinary movements such as standing up or turning around quickly as these movements can trigger an imbalance in the body’s equilibrium which can be highly unpleasant. Someone with a hypersensitive vestibular sense may fear or avoid things like swinging on a swing set, going down slides, or going up hills. They may also seem very clumsy and have difficulty with activities that involve uneven surfaces or height differences.
Meanwhile, someone who is hyposensitive in their vestibular sense will require more sensory input in the form of movement than is typical in order to be comfortable. People with hyposensitive vestibular senses may feel a constant need to be moving and may frequently jump up and down, run in circles, spin around, or rock back and forth. To an outside observer, someone who is hyposensitive in this sense may appear to be hyperactive or overflowing with energy. People with this hyposensitivity are generally under-stimulated in their vestibular sense and will be very sensory seeking in this regard.
So how does one deal with hyper- or hyposensitivity? Some of the best ways to help with these sensitivities is to engage in stimming behaviors. Someone who is hypersensitive require slow, predictable, rhythmic movements in order to regulate their senses. The following are some examples of stims that may help someone who is hypersensitive:
- Swinging gently
- Slowly twirling
- Rocking back and forth
- Riding a merry go round
- Swinging in a hammock
People who are hyposensitive require fast and unpredictable movements. The following are some stims/sensory seeking behaviors that may help someone who is hyposensitive:
- Log rolls
- Lying on an exercise ball
- Hanging upside down
- Riding a roller coaster
The vestibular sense may not be well known, but hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities can provide unique challenges for autistic people. Too much sensory input can contribute to sensory overloads and meltdowns/shutdowns. Too little sensory input can leave a person feeling wrong but not understanding why. Sensory seeking behavior and stimming are important to help regulate the vestibular sense and are an important part of a sensory diet.