The Vestibular System: The Seventh Sense and Autism

In our childhood, we were taught the five senses: sight, taste, smell and touch. But did you know there are actually 8? That’s right! The lesser-known three senses are proprioceptive sense (sense of where your body is), vestibular sense (the way that gravity affects us) and interoception (how the body is feeling on the inside).

Does your child exhibit any of the following?

  • walks/runs unsteadily or cautiously
  • clumsy and frequently falls for no apparent reason
  • difficulty being still or unable to maintain attention/focus without moving
  • either doesn’t get dizzy with excessive spinning or gets overly dizzy with little spinning
  • Is afraid/dislikes or seeks/craves activities where the feet leave the ground such as swings, slides, jumping, climbing
  • Dislikes having head tilted back
  • Weak postural control slouches/falls from a chair
  • poor hand-eye, foot-eye coordination
  • appears unaware of risks of height or moving equipment

My son is 3 1/2 and has Autism and ADHD, and I can pretty much check off most of the items on the list above.  It’s called vestibular dysfunction.  To understand vestibular dysfunction, you need to first understand what the vestibular system is and how it works.

What is the Vestibular System?

The vestibular system can be described as the body’s internal GPS.  As you move, fluid in the inner ear activates sensors inside the ear.  That data, along with information from your other senses, such as what you see, gives you a sense of where you are in space.

For instance, if you are you standing or sitting. Or if you are moving and if so how fast and in what direction.  The vestibular system is comprised of two pathways of input, the semicircular canals, which indicate rotational movements; and the otoliths, which indicate linear accelerations. (Click here for a visual description of the vestibular system.)

What happens when it doesn’t function properly?

When there is dysregulation in the vestibular system the body doesn’t move as confidently, smoothly, and safely.  Children can have difficulty with balance and coordination.  It can cause them to be fearful or impulsive.  It can be a severe safety issue.  A child may jump from a high surface, such as a piece of furniture, and get injured because they can’t judge the height.

Vestibular dysregulation can manifest in either hypersensitivity or hypo-sensitivity.  For example, a child may either get overly dizzy with mild spinning or not dizzy at all with extreme spinning.

How to Strengthen Your Child’s Vestibular System Using a Sensory Diet

The good news is your child’s vestibular system can be strengthened.  An occupational therapist is an excellent resource for this.  They can help you create what is called a “sensory diet” for your child’s specific vestibular needs. The OT will evaluate the child to determine which sensory input they are overreacting to and which input they are under reacting to. Then calibrate sensory input to meet the child where they are and to help move them forward.  A sensory diet may include things such as:

  • bouncing using a mini trampoline or therapy ball
  • swinging in a hammock or swing
  • spinning on a swivel chair or sit-in-spin
  • rocking in a rocking chair or rocking horse
  • climbing using a ladder or playground equipment
  • hanging upside down from monkey bars or trapeze
  • outdoor games such as soccer, catch
  • slides
  • swimming

This is only a small sampling of hundreds of options for creating a sensory diet to target vestibular dysfunction.  It is essential to work closely with an OT because if you overstimulate the vestibular system, you can worsen the dysregulation.  Often just a few minutes of activity is enough.

My son used to have difficulty swinging in a swing.  He could climb and spin with ease, but the back and forth motion of the swing severely dysregulated him.  His OT first started by having him just lie on his tummy on the swing without movement.  After a few successful trials, she placed a toy on the ground he needed to reach for while on his belly on the swing.  After success with that, she began to slowly move the swing.  She worked with him for about a year in the gym, doing short activities like this.  It worked!  Before when we visited the park, he’d avoid the swings.  Now he enjoys them.

The more I learn about the science behind the autistic brain, the more sensitive and empathetic I am towards my son’s needs.  It is my hope not to change my child, but to help him overcome the challenges that often disrupt the ability to let his strengths shine!


When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows.  Not the flower. – Alexander Den Heijer

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.