Thomas was five years old when he first came to occupational therapy. His parents described him as being a ‘good child’. He had never gotten into any trouble. Thomas had never gotten out of his bed by himself. If he was put in his room, he stayed there.
Thomas tended to be quiet and although he had an extensive vocabulary, was slow to respond to questions or efforts to engage him in conversation. He was inconsistent in responding to his name and had a flat affect.
At school he seemed lost, disengaged. Thomas often sought out extra physical support from his environment by leaning against furniture, hanging his legs over the arms of a chair, or lying down on the floor.
What is Low Arousal?
Thomas is a child with classic low registration of sensory input with a low arousal response. Children who under-register sensory input may respond either by actively seeking out more input (sensory seekers), or like Thomas, by ‘going with the flow’, demonstrating a low arousal level. And of course some children may vacillate.
Children with low arousal nervous systems:
- are often difficult to get going in the morning. It often takes them a good part of the morning to get to the point where they are more engaged with their environment
- are passive, have a slow reaction time, and often a low energy level
- have low muscle tone
- find sustained and focused attention during seated activities is often challenging
- are content to let the world pass by without engagement
- have teachers often describe them as “being lost in their own day dreams”
Under-Registering Sensory Input
Children who present with low arousal usually under register proprioceptive, vestibular and/or tactile input. These three sensory systems work together to help the nervous system regulate energy level and the ability to focus and attend.
Proprioceptors are receptors in the muscles and joints that provide information about the internal position of our body parts. Accurate registration and interpretation of proprioceptive input is important for using our bodies skillfully.
Vestibular input is received through the semi-circular canals in the ears and provides us information about our head position, coordinates our head and eye movements, contributes to underlying muscle tone and mediates our response to movement and gravity. This information also influences our alertness, activity level and attention.
How to Help a Low Arousal Child
A sensory diet that starts early in the morning is essential for helping the child with low arousal to function optimally. These children also benefit from lots of proprioceptive (heavy work) and sometimes vestibular input to ‘wake up’ their nervous system. Remember that each child is different and it requires some detective work to identify what strategies will be most effective.
Vestibular Activities & How to Use them Appropriately
Develop a New Morning Routine
A gradual light alarm clock that slowly brightens the room
Lively music to help alert nervous system
Breakfast that includes protein
10-20 minutes of movement, such as jumping on a trampoline, [easyazon-link asin=”B000BNEO4O” locale=”us”]hoppitty ball[/easyazon-link] or going for a bike ride
Suggestions for the Classroom
Use high interest, contrasting and novel materials, textures, sounds and colors
Have the child change position frequently
Vary the sound in the classroom, including some periods of lively music (can be with headphones if distracting to other class members)
Do desk work activities while standing; some children do better with ‘seat work’ if allowed to do it standing. Check out Seating Solutions for the Classroom
Use this child to demonstrate activities or write things on the board
Give the child physical tasks such as erasing board, sharpening pencils the old-fashion way, moving furniture
Lemon is alerting, so having a water bottle with lemon slices may be helpful
Something to chew or suck may be helpful. Consider a [easyazon-link asin=”B001ANUSY4″ locale=”us”]chewy necklace[/easyazon-link], gum, sour candies or pieces of lemon.
An [easyazon-link asin=”B00176B4U6″ locale=”us”]inflated seat cushion[/easyazon-link] to provide extra sensory input that may help this child sit and attend
Use lots of hands on learning activities. They often do best with high interest activities that can be accomplished in a short period of time.
Incorporate movement into group learning times. For example, have class stand and jump while counting or pass a [easyazon-link asin=”B0042SWWB6″ locale=”us”]weighted ball[/easyazon-link] around while singing. Get ideas in Incorporate Balance & Vestibular Activities into Lessons
Small changes employed throughout the day can make a big difference for the child with a low arousal sensory system.