Balance is a multi-sensory activity. Our “sense” of balance, from the time of our embryonic development through full-fledged adulthood, is based on the proper functioning of the vestibular system in close conjunction with our visual, motor skills and positioning (proprioceptive) systems. Body position, muscular-skeletal control, tactile feedback, motor coordination and visual processing inputs all combine to form a “multi-sensory network” with many functions. This seamless system of inputs and feedback must work precisely to form what we call our sense of balance. Highly calibrated sensory integration skills are required for good balance and a range of learning, reading and other difficulties occur when the relationship between balance and our other sensory systems is upset or out of sync.
Without a well-functioning vestibular system, any child or adult will have extreme difficulty balancing on a beam or standing on one foot, for instance, but the complications certainly do not end there. Those with deficits in their vestibular function can also experience a range of other issues that are indirectly related to balance, even though we tend not to think of them in the same way we do tiptoeing along a balance beam. With a system as complex and multifaceted as the human neurological system, the system’s basic inputs (in this case sensory) must be calibrated to an external constant (just like other complex systems are) in order to function in a measureable and repeatable fashion. Gravity, actually the acceleration of gravity as interpreted through the vestibular, is what provides this critical reference point and is what enables our senses to integrate thoroughly in reference to an unchanging environmental constant.
Although the vestibular system develops in infants, the developmental process continues throughout childhood. Around age thee, children are making the transition from vestibular control based on vision, to control that becomes somatosensory (which broadly means it is rooted in the sense of touch and sensation). “As early as the pre-school level, an in-tact vestibular system contributes to sensory integration and the maturation of eye movements that are required for efficient reading and learning.” (Solan, 2007) Without an effective transition from basic balance and sensory integration, learning and reading development (dyslexia, for example) can be significantly delayed.
Children do not demonstrate adult-like use of sensory information until they are around 12 years of age (Peterson, 2006), which means that the initial process of vestibular development extends almost into puberty. This means that there are ample opportunities available over a long period of time to help children, even those without dyslexia, ADD, ADHD and learning disabilities, improve their developmental skills. With focused efforts on improving balance and sensory processing skills, children with healthy vestibular systems can thrive and those with challenges or weaknesses in these areas can begin to improve, often dramatically.
“Therapy using a sensory integrative approach is the most common treatment for [those with sensory integration issues] and has been shown to be effective in more than 80 studies.” This type of therapy presents the child or adult with a movement activity that they are to perform while the vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile stimuli are presented. This treatment method, again with its roots in balance and sensory integration, “has been shown to improve pursuits, saccades, convergence, fusional reserves, accommodative facility, visual perception and reading skills in children with sensory integration issues and dyslexia.” (Allison, 2007) For a child without a learning disability or problems associated with sensory integration and balance issues, this type of therapy (which is similar in nature to that provided by the Learning Breakthrough Program) can enhance the skills that exist and prevent compensating sensory behaviors from forming.
Allison CL. (2007). An optometric approach to patients with sensory integration dysfunction. Optometry- The Journal of the American Optometric Association (St. Louis, Mo.), 78(12), 644-51.
Peterson ML. (2006). Children achieve adult-like sensory integration during stance at 12-years-old. Gait & Posture, 23(4), 455-63.
Solan, H. A. (2007). Vestibular Function, Sensory Integration, and Balance Anomalies: A Brief Literature Review. Optometry & Vision Development, 38(1), 13-17.
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