Natalie is an adorable four-year-old girl. Her mother is concerned because Natalie is always bumping into people and furniture, falls frequently and occasionally even crashes into walls. Natalie is always touching things as she encounters them and often lies down flat on the floor during meals or class time. Natalie’s mother brought her to The Therapy Place to see if we could determine the causes of Natalie’s unusual behaviors and help her function better.
Natalie has decreased body awareness. She is less aware of herself and where she is relative to her surroundings than most people naturally are. She needs extra input from her environment in order to gain the level of spatial awareness that most people naturally have. This causes her to display sensory-seeking behaviors.
Spatial awareness begins developing in infanthood. For example, when babies reach toward a parent’s face they may hit or miss – but through this exercise their brains develop a neural network that provides the awareness of depth and space. Eventually they learn to reach accurately, no longer needing the outside stimuli (banging into the object) to give them the information of where the object is. Their awareness of themselves relative where other things are develops to the point that they naturally know where their own body begins and ends and where other objects begin and end.
Natalie’s sense of spatial awareness is underdeveloped. She is not intuitively aware of how close or far other objects are. She needs extra input to assess where she is at any given moment. She may bump into things because she didn’t know how close they were. She touches things as a way of establishing their location and her own location relative to the object.
In order to develop better spatial awareness, we used therapeutic techniques to provide intense, repetitive sensory input. By tracing the same “path” over and over again, Natalie would develop the neural pathways she was missing.
The therapist placed a sack of cool, heavy beans in front of Natalie and guided her to bury her hands in the beans, move them around, feel the sensation of the weight through her fingers and over her arms. The therapist also brushed Natalie’s arms with a sensory brush. During these activities the therapist talked to Natalie, describing the feelings of the beans and brush on her skin in order to help Natalie understand what her body was experiencing.
The therapist also addressed the vestibular system in order to help Natalie develop better balance. The vestibular system is based in the inner ear and regulates balance. Since Natalie’s vestibular system was underdeveloped, she fell often. To build the neural pathways that would develop better balance, the therapist had Natalie swing repeatedly in specific positions. The goal was to bring Natalie to that “click” moment when she would be able to sense where she was on her own, without relying on outside information.
By constantly challenging and encouraging Natalie to develop her weak areas, we were able to establish those missing neural networks. By the end of her course of treatment Natalie was no longer fidgeting with materials or crashing into walls. Natalie had developed a typical sense of spatial and body awareness. Today Natalie is a happy-go-lucky child who runs, plays and only crashes into walls as often as any of her friends.