If you were wondering what astronaut training has to do with your child and his or her therapy, here’s an overview of this common sensory integration treatment: First of all you, need to understand that since the vestibular system affects movement, it essentially affects everything we do. It helps us with balance, knowing where we are in space (and I’m not talking about “outer space”), and helps us in maintaining a stable image to see things. Clearly, it is important to have a well functioning vestibular system! Vestibular deficits are found in people with delayed motor skills, attention deficits, language disorders, autism and learning disabilities. The vestibular system works together with the auditory and visual systems to bring meaning to our world. The vestibular system is located within the inner ear. It is through movement of the fluids within the canals that our brain tells us if we are upright, sideways, upside down, moving, or staying still. The visual system is closely tied into the vestibular system as well. It tells us where we are in space and if we are actually moving or standing still.
During the astronaut training, we spin the child around on a board at a certain number of revolutions per minute. When the body is spinning, the eyes try to focus on the objects moving around the body to help orient the body in space. When the body stops spinning, the eyes will typically continue to move side to side (while in sitting) or up and down (while lying on your side) for several seconds following the movement. This happens because the fluid in the ears is still moving and trying to orient us back to a still position. This movement of the eyes following spinning is called nystagmus or saccades. Nystagmus should be seen for half of the amount of the time the body was spun; i.e. after spinning for 20 seconds, nystagmus should be seen for approximately 10 seconds. When no nystagmus is seen, the vestibular system is under responsive to movement; and conversely, when excessive nystagmus is seen, the vestibular system is over-reactive to movement.
An under-responsive system typically appears as a child who is constantly moving and prefers to swing, flip, or place the body in positions of intense vestibular activation, such as upside down. An over-responsive system will appear as a child who avoids intense movement experiences, such as a roller coasters, or has a fear of having his/her feet off the ground. We use this motion to help train the brain to accommodate more appropriately to the rotation stimulus. We also use visual tracking exercises and sound to aid in this process. As a result, we train the brain to more effectively integrate movement information with all of the senses so that the body becomes more organized.
Sally Fryer, PT, CST-D, SIPT Cert.