When my eldest was first diagnosed autistic I tended to ignore the advice related to sensory issues because I didn’t see him as having any. It is easier to recognise sensory processing challenges in a child that is sensitive to noise, smell and touch because these are the senses we are more familiar with.
I had never heard of proprioception, vestibular or introception all of which are very important senses for all of us. Turns out my son is generally a sensory seeker and sensory regulation has a massive impact on his focus and wellbeing. Over time I have learnt that sensory processing is a major issue for most people on the autistic spectrum but those sensory challenges will be very different for each person. In today’s post I am going to focus on the proprioceptive sense.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is about body awareness. The sense of your own body in space without using touch or sight. When you close your eyes you still know where your arms or legs are because of your proprioceptive sense.
It is the sense we use to plan our movements, it tells us where our body parts are in relation to space around us. It impacts our co-ordination and it is the key to feeling safe and secure in your own body.
Examples of proprioception in action are clapping your hands with your eyes closed, navigating across a crowded room and knowing how much pressure to apply to write with a pencil.
Proprioceptors are nerve endings in our muscles and joints that send signals to our brain to control our movements. For most of us this happens without us thinking about it.
What does Poor Proprioception look like?
Poor proprioception can mean challenges with daily activities such as dressing. Individuals with poor proprioception may appear un-coordinated or clumsy, bashing into things or being over reliant on sight.
Our proprioceptors also help us to identify how much force or control to use. Someone with poor proprioception may use too much or too little force with their body. Someone with poor proprioception may feel safer when in a corner or pressing against furniture or other individuals to feel where their body is.
Some examples of low proprioception:
- Have poor posture
- Fidget often
- Have poor body awareness
- Like tight clothing
- Slow getting dressed
- Miss mouth with food and drops things
- Uses too much or too little pressure
- Loves to be wrapped in blankets
- Grinds teeth
Why you need to include proprioceptive stimulation in a sensory diet
Whilst it may be obvious that someone with low / poor proprioception should stimulate it, it is also really important for those who have other sensory challenges. For someone who is oversensitive to sensory input such as noise, stimulating the proprioceptive sense can help to make the sensitivities more tolerable.
Stimulation of the proprioceptive sense can help to regulate other sensory systems. So for a child like mine who is a sensory seeker stimulating his proprioceptive sense can help him to regulate better. It can calm him when he is overstimulated and help him to be more grounded and focus.
You may find that our kids naturally seek out proprioceptive stimulation but it is really good to ensure they have regular access to it. A good sensory diet will include regular stimulation of the proprioceptive sense. It can be delivered by putting stretch or compression on joints or using deep pressure to touch muscles. Below are some ideas you can try.
How to stimulate the proprioceptive sense
Anything that is pushing or pulling and provides a good indication to the body where it is will work well.
Physical activity is the best way to provide proprioceptive input this can be impact exercises such as jumping on the trampoline and catching or kicking balls.
Heavy work is perfect see this list of heavy work examples from Bristol Autism Support.
Weighted items such as blankets or toys can work well, get advice from an occupational therapist before buying a weighted blanket. Compression items are also good such as wearing lycra or football skins.
Activities that involve pushing and pulling including things like stress balls or playdoh.
For more ideas I highly recommend this free webinar from Gympanzees on the proprioceptive sense.
My five year old loves spending time jumping on the trampoline, don’t know what we would do without it. My 7 year old is more into pushing activities, he really enjoys kneading bread dough which is a great activity. What do your kids do to stimulate their proprioceptive sense?