Astronaut Program

The vestibular system is like the “compass” of our brain! It is a uniquely designed structure located in the middle ear that detects movement and gives us an understanding of where our head and body are in space in relation to the pull of gravity. 

Children with vestibular processing dysfunction have poor motor coordination skills, may be fearful of movement, awkward, clumsy, fall and bump into things. These children may have poor balance.  They may appear to be “squirmy”, “fidgety”, or be described as the child who “doesn’t stop moving”. Children with vestibular processing dysfunction may appear to be “lost in space”.  Their actual experience may feel similar to the sensation astronauts feel when gravity is eliminated; thus the term Astronaut Training.

Astronaut Training is the term used to describe the treatment protocol for vestibular habilitation.  Mary J. Kawar MS,OTR, and Sheila Frick OTR/L developed a child friendly approach to vestibular training which incorporates therapeutically imposed movement, visual (sight) and auditory (sound) activities that are fun and appealing to children.

The vestibular system also activates our visual system. Movement stimulates the muscles that support the vertical axis of our body.  A strong center is required as a stable support in order for us to use our eyes effectively. A strong and stable core allows us to hold our eyes steady on a target while moving our body through space. Without our eyes working properly in conjunction with our vestibular system, visual information is not interpreted properly. This in turn makes it difficult to read, write, throw and catch a ball, and participate in many activities that are so vital to proper childhood development.

Using music through the Astronaut Training protocol incorporates sensory integration through a different channel of the central nervous system. The auditory system is basic to our survival in that it prepares us for the “fight/flight” response.  The sensory input of sound also stimulates activation of the muscles surrounding our core vertical support. Sound should always elicit an orienting response.  An orienting response activates the postural muscles that enable us to bring our bodies into an alert, upright position.  This allows us to turn our heads and our bodies if necessary and then visually locate the source of sound in a precise manner. It is then that we determine if we are faced with a “fight” or “flight” situation.

During our day to day activities of daily living, all parts of the vestibular-visual-auditory triad are required to function at optimal levels.  All systems working together will properly provide us with a good understanding of the “spatial envelope” in which we live.  Without full integration of all systems, the sensory information received will be interpreted in a fragmented way that does not make sense.  It is for these reasons that Astronaut Training is a helpful tool that is used to assist in achieving optimal vestibular function.