I hear a lot about kids who aren’t comfortable in big spaces: cafeterias, churches, gyms. Many parents, and even some therapists, attribute it to lack of familiarity: these are places they use inconsistently and are filled with more strangers. Or they mention noise intolerance: to music, to shouting, and to sounds like balls bouncing or people clapping.
But how about spatial issues? We use our hearing to know where we are in a space, and to monitor our position in relation to people and objects as we move through space. Kids who are poor at orientation to sound (I hear it, and I know where it is coming from) are usually also fair to poor at discriminating sound (I know what that sound is like and what it is or could be). They may have a diagnosable hearing issue, or they may have a processing issue with no organ limitation. Or they have both.
As sounds bounce off surfaces, we hear them and determine, like RADAR, how close we are to that surface. We might turn our heads slightly, but we can hear in both ears, giving us stereo comparisons that tell us about what is behind us, above us and even below us.
In large spaces, sounds are “swallowed up” and give us less information. This is part of the design of gothic cathedrals; you have a different sense inside them, a sense of being a bit “lost”, of how small you are in the face of the almighty. Not just luck. Our ancestors understood the effect of altering spatial awareness on our sense of safety and stability. But for people with spatial issues, they feel uncomfortably lost, very off kilter in environments that make them struggle to get a sense of their position in these types of locations. For kids with poor sensory processing, it can happen in a grocery store or a new classroom.
What other sense is involved in spatial awareness? Vision. Vision is only helpful for about the 180 degrees in front of us, and not all of that vision is acute. Our peripheral vision is fuzzy but still gives us some information about things going on to our extreme right and left.
The kids with poor auditory skills will use their vision excessively, and the kids with poor vision will try to use their auditory skills to shore up what they can’t see. What does this look like? Kids who are turning their heads constantly as they move, trying to get a sense of their location as they move, when their auditory system should be telling them about the distance between them and the boundaries of the room and it’s contents. Kids who seem to hear everything, and yet not your voice telling them not to step on their brother’s LEGO car, which they don’t seem to see on the floor.
Poor spatial awareness often makes kids anxious. This can sometimes be interpreted as a psychological issue, but CBT and drugs will never make it better. That is a hint that perhaps it is a sensory issue. Spatial issues can also make kids rigid about where they will go. They may refuse unfamiliar parks, pools, playgrounds and new classrooms.
What can you do to help kids? Work on auditory and visual skills, and always use vestibular and proprioceptive input as modulators and regulators. I especially like the Therapeutic Listening Spatial series. Spatial skills are important, and they can be improved!