Our Journey Raising Two Children with Special Needs

This blog chronicles our life raising two children, Nicholas 14, diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome and Weston 17, diagnosed with Autism/Asperger's/ADHD. It's the ups, the downs, the joys, the sorrows and most importantly, the beauty of living a life less perfect, a life more meaningful.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Never Underestimate the Power of the Swing

Nicholas loves to swing.

It has a powerful calming effect on him as he swings back and forth......back and forth.

When he was a toddler, I took him and Weston to the local playground. While Weston bounced around the field like a bumble bee, buzzing from one play structure to the next, Nicholas preferred to just swing.

In fact, I remember once, while at the playground, I tried to take Nicholas out of the swing to work on his climbing skills. He wasn't speaking yet, but he looked at me very impatiently, as if to say,

"Mom, you silly woman, I know my body is weak, but can't a guy just enjoy a good swing once in a while without having to do therapy all the time? Give me a break will ya. I'm having fun!"

I laugh now as I think about that day since the swing has continued to be a very important tool in Nicholas's life.

At school, Nick's Physical Therapist has a therapy room where she keeps a therapeutic swing. She explained that swinging helps children build trunk strength, improve balance and provides vestibular input.

Nicholas's aide has found that this tool is also beneficial to Nicholas in diverting a potential tantrum. When she notices Nicholas having trouble with a transition or just "not being himself" she will walk him into the therapy room and put him on the swing. Within seconds, Nicholas is calmed. He loves to just swing and swing and swing.

It seems to have some sort of meditative effect. It allows Nicholas to collect and center himself. After a few minutes, he is ready to continue his day. His mood improves, he is calm and much more cooperative.

Since he no longer takes naps, this therapy seems to be a good alternative to resting. Many times, he has fallen asleep while swinging. Nick's aide tries to incorporate 10-15 minutes of "swing time" into his daily schedule. We have documented this therapy as an important component in Nick's IEP.

It also works well at home. We found a supportive swing and hooked it onto our swing set that sits in our back yard. During the summer, we use it almost every day.

I have learned never to underestimate the power of the swing. It is really the simple things in life that mean so much to Nicholas.

Here is an interesting article I found that discusses the important sensory inputs swinging provides to the vestibular system. Enjoy.

The Vestibular System: Why Is It So Critical?
By Zoe Mailloux, MA., OTR Director, Pediatric Therapy Network, Torrance CA

Of all the sensory systems that we talk about in sensory integration theory and treatment, the one that may be the most basic, yet the hardest to understand is the vestibular sense. This sensory system develops just a few weeks after conception and plays a very important role in a child's early development. It was also probably one of the most important senses for our evolutionary ancestors. However, the vestibular sense is not familiar to many people.

Children do not learn about it when they learn about the basic sensory systems and if adults know about this system, they may only be aware that it has something to do with balance. Understanding more about the vestibular system will be helpful to a better understanding of the types of problems children may have as well as the methods we use to address these problems.

As we all know, the are portions of our eyes and ears which "take in" sights and sounds and send that information to our brain. The parts of the vestibular sense which "take in" information to be sent to our brain are located in the inner ear. One part is a set of fluid-filled canals which respond to movement and change of direction. The other part is a sac-like structure which responds to change of head position and gravitational pull. The information about movement and head position that comes in through these structures is sent to many different parts of the brain. This is one of the main reasons we are so concerned about this sensory system--it has so many different functions which are important to our ability to do so many things.

One important funtion of the vestibular system allows us to coordinate our eye movements with our head movements. This occurs in activities such as copying from a backboard (looking up and then back down at our work), turning our head to watch a moving object (as in watching a ball move across a soccer field), and even sometimes in looking across a page to read. These functions of the vestibular system probably help to explain why several studies have shown that up to half of all children with learning disorders show signs of vestibular dysfunction.

The vestibular system is also important for helping us to develop and maintain normal muscle tone. Tone is not the same as muscle strength, but it does allow us to hold our body in position and to maintain positions. The vestibular system is especially important in helping us to keep our heads up. Many children with vestibular problems slouch at their desks, hold their heads up wih their hands and generally seem to have low endurance.

Balance and equilibrium are also very influenced by the vestibular system. In addition, our ability to coordinate both sides of our body together (as is needed in riding a bicycle or cutting with scissors) also require good vestibular function. Finally, some aspects of language seem closely related to the way in which the vestibular system processes information.

Considering all of these very basic and important functions, it is not difficult to see how a vestibular problem can create a very real yet often invisible problem.

What Parents Can Do To Help: The following are some ideas that can be used to help the vestibular system develop and function normally:

*  Movement experiences are very important to the developing child. Be sure to make time for activities like swinging, sliding, riding the merry-go-rounds at the park, etc. Encourage active, child-propelled movements rather than passive movement (e.g. never spin, twirl, or swing a child excessively or for prescribed lengths of time-this is sometimes recommended by individuals who quote, but do not understand, Ayres' theories).

*  Experiment to see if your child has an easier time sitting up or doing paperword after physical activity (especially swinging or other movement activity). The vestibular system often has fairly immediate effect on the nervous systme, and for some children, these activities can make desk type work much easier.

*  Encourage activites in which the child lies on his stomach and holds his head up. Try playing Legos in this position or have him throw objects at a targer while lying on his stomach on a swing.

*  Encourage "bilateral" or two sided activities such as jumping rope, swimming, biking, rowing, paddling, etc. Too much swinging or spinning can have a negative effect (overactivity, lethargy, changes in heart rate and breathing, etc.) Some children cannot pace themselves very well and have reactions sometime after the activity. Discuss these activities with your therapistand plan appropriately for your child.

This article was originally published in the Spring 1993 edition of the Sensory Integration Quarterly. (Initially published in New Developments: Volume 2, Number 3 - Winter 1996-1997)