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Do you suffer from motion sickness?  Travelling by car or spinning on a fairground ride can produce sudden changes in body movement that can make you feel very unwell.

What you are experiencing is a sudden and unwelcome change to your vestibular system – the system which regulates our sense of balance and body control. It also contributes to our skills in gross and fine motor interaction, from arms and legs to fingers and toes.

by Yvonne Smith
Autism in Practice Training and Development Officer

Vestibular

The vestibular system is located in our inner ears.  When it isn’t working typically, people with autism can be seriously affected.  It can impede their understanding of what is happening to them and to the world around them.

Anyone can have an over- or under- responsiveness to one of the senses. Those who also have an autistic spectrum condition have a higher than average likelihood of a difference in their sense – in fact, 78 per cent of those on the spectrum have a sensory difference.

Over responsive (avoider)

A person who has an over responsiveness to stimuli affecting the vestibular sense finds it difficult to control their debilitating response to motion. It is especially important to recognise in someone whose cognitive differences inhibit their ability to communicate effectively – such as those on the autistic spectrum – as it can have a negative physical effect on the body.

Travel sickness can last for hours but whilst those of us who are neurotypical can understand its cause and take steps to avoid it, someone with autism may not be able to do this. They may not even know what is causing the nauseous feelings and this will usually create a rise in their anxiety. This may lead to an avoidance of what appears to be an ordinary experience or situation.

Each individual is different and time to process these sensations may vary depending on the person so it may be even more difficult to determine the cause of the anxiety.

Repetitive actions like mild rocking or swinging can help calm an over-stimulated vestibular system by gently controlling the movement. This can also build tolerance.

Under responsiveness (seeker)

Someone who has an under responsiveness in their vestibular system will seek experiences to boost the input they are seeking. They would require more movement to their vestibular system so that they seek the ideal balance that we all feel comfortable with in all our senses. This may appear as hyperactivity, a desire to be on the move all the time, to eagerly accept experiences like fairground rides, swings, rough and tumble or gymnastics. All of these activities will stimulate the sense.

Sensory input and processing can stop a person in their tracks. We should allow time and space if a person goes into sensory overload as this could be part of processing through their sensors.

Yvonne Smith works for Autism in Practice, part of north west charity Autism Together. Yvonne and her colleagues train public and private sector organisations in autism awareness.