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Why We Really Need to Treat Gravitational Issues - December 2007

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Why We Really Need to Treat Gravitational Issues

By: Susan N. Shriber Orloff, OTR/L

What is the common thread that links coping skills, recess and self-esteem: the sensory system. It is the glue that bonds everything together. It is the translator for the world in which we live. When it is skewed, the entire way one sees, understands and reacts to situations is altered, often significantly.

Although handwriting may be the main reason teachers refer children for occupational therapy, it is how they are getting along with the teacher and their peers that seem to bother parents the most. It is the dysfunction of trying to all go out to dinner, take family trips, make plans for outings, etc. that frazzle the family dynamics.

The sensory system at once both complex and self- evident, is often the major "player" in the child's ability to cope, transition, and acquire functional actions and reactions.

So much has been written about the vestibular system, that many of you are probably writing the rest of this article in your mind as you read. But I am not going to talk about the particulars of that system, but the functional end-products of it. Gravitational insecurity can cause a child to literally panic in physical education class, fain "stomach aches" when it is time for recess, and limit the ability to learn the "real stuff" of school, getting to know yourself as a unique and capable person.

I have seen children who are above-average in cognition fully fall apart when asked to try to go on a swing, much less a zip-line! I have seen children be able to break down a gross motor skill into its component parts with ease and not be able to put the actions together correctly.

Take for example, a cartwheel. You have to put your hands down in a slight "step pattern, kick and push your legs up, and arch your back and shift your weight. When broken down, I have seen children be able to do all of these things perfectly. However, when asked to take that split second leap of hands down/feet up, tears flow and anxiety rises.

What causes this? It is, in my opinion, a "frozen" vestibular system. Defrosting this system is a delicate balance between combining the Nike catch phrase "Just do It", with scaffolding assists. Resistance cannot be a reason to stop, these children are constantly finding reasons to not engage in what they perceive as threatening or uncomfortable activities. And more often than not, these children are basically very unhappy: in school, with peers and even at home.

They become the kids that play on the computer, draw a lot, write stories, listen to music like to watch TV. They generally shun gross motor activities, and resist engagement with tears and tantrums.

Dennis Prager, in his book, "Happiness is a Serious Problem" speaks to the difference between happiness and fun. Fun is passive. It is riding on an amusement ride, watching a movie, etc. Real happiness, he states, comes from accomplishments; achieving that which was difficult or once thought "impossible". That is why selfesteem and functional development. It is the difference between an "I can" attitude and an "I can't and I won't" outlook on life. Left unchallenged the latter can escalate into an almost impenetrable wall of negativity.

The Sensory Profile asks about children who "take risks". Not all risks are bad. Some teach us that we can engage in unfamiliar tasks and master them. That is just as much a risk-taking behavior as the more common irresponsible decision-making we often associate with "risk-taking".

A child who covers their ears when in a restaurant, cannot tolerate the fire drill siren, startles to unexpected noises is equally limited in the noise and action driven world of young children.

The blacktop is a place where we learn about give and take, getting included and excluded, following rules we may not agree with, sharing, taking turns and patience. It is as important as the academic subjects. It can be inviting and fun, or threatening and fearsome. It is place where children define themselves as being "liked" or "disliked" and those self-imposed definitions are potent.

A lot of kids just get out there and "do it", but for others it is as layered a learning process as math, science or language arts. Teaching the building blocks of play is what a lot of pediatric occupational therapy does. It can transform a child's ability to learn and ultimately create real and lasting happiness.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Children's Special Services, LLC

Special Thanks to Susan Scriber Orloff for providing an article for this issue's Therapy Corner.

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of the book Learning RE-Enabled, a guide for parents, teachers, and therapists (and a National Education Association featured book), and the Handwriting on the Wall Program. Children's Special Services, LLC is the exclusive provider of Personal Options and Preferences, tm social skills programs. She was the 2006 Georgia OT of the Year and the CEO/executive director of Children's Special Services, LLC, which provides occupational therapy services for children with developmental and learning delays in Atlanta.

Please support our contributing authors and visit Your Children's Special Services, LLC on the web at: She can also be reached by email at:

Tags: Sensory Motor Skills - Sensory Integration December 2007 Newsletter OT PT Gross Motor Skills Sensory Processing Disorder Autism Article