Proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense, informs us of our body position in space. Receptors for this system are located primarily in our muscles and relay information on muscle length and tension. This allows us to know where our joints are positioned as well as the amount of force against our body and the effort our muscles need to apply at any given time. To get an idea of how the proprioceptive system works, imagine closing your eyes and having someone move your arms to an extended position in front of you. Even though you can’t see them, you can feel that your arms are outstretched. Now if someone were to place 10 pound weights in each hand, your proprioceptive system would signal for you to make one of two decisions. Either let your arms fall to your sides due to the increased force or contract your muscles with greater effort to match it. We rely heavily on this sense throughout the day to keep track of what our bodies are doing. Much like the vestibular system, proprioception is necessary for building body awareness and security in how we fit in with our environment.
Short term impairments in proprioceptive processing can happen, for example, following a growth spurt or when a person is tired. However, for a child whose proprioceptive system is not functioning as it should, the messages that tell him where he is, how to move, and how much effort to exert just aren’t as strong. These difficulties may manifest in a number of ways.
Signs of difficulty with proprioceptive processing:
- Easily frustrated or lacking confidence
- Frequent crashing, bumping, climbing, falling, or jumping
- Frequent kicking while sitting or stomping feet while walking
- Enjoys deep pressure from bear hugs, being “squished,” being wrapped in tight blankets, or lying under something heavy
- Uses too much force for writing or coloring. They may break the tip of the writing utensil, rip the paper while erasing, or complain about hand fatigue
- Often plays too rough with peers, siblings, or pets
- Wants to wear clothes and accessories too tight
- Misjudges the amount of force needed to pick up objects (may often spill, break or drop things, or complain that objects are too heavy to carry)
- Difficulty isolating body movements or locating body parts, such as touching the tip of their noise with a finger, particularly when eyes are closed
Activities for proprioceptive input:
- Heavy work! This is a phrase you will often hear occupational therapists use as a go-to strategy in almost any sensory diet. This can mean much more than just carrying something heavy; it is simply resistive input. This could be squeezing something in your hands, chewing something particularly hard, or pushing, pulling, lifting, climbing, or crawling with the entire body
- Provide deep pressure by squeezing them in a “burrito” or “sandwich” using a blanket, pillows, or cushions. You can also deliver deep pressure through shoulder squeezes or massage
- Spend time at the playground and allow movement as often as possible! Kids often don’t have opportunities to run, jump, and play nearly as often as their bodies crave
- Have them help with chores such as carrying laundry, pushing a vacuum, cleaning off windows or tables, rake/shovel, carry groceries, etc.
- Build body awareness with activities that require locating body parts (Simon says, Hokey Pokey) or imitating a body position or movement sequence
Adequate proprioceptive processing is fundamental in building a child’s sense of self and in achieving important developmental milestones. If you suspect that your son or daughter is experiencing difficulties in this area, working with an occupational therapist can provide further insight and help develop a plan for your child.
More on the Subtypes of SPD:
- Sensory Processing Disorder: The Subtypes
- Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Tactile System
- Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Auditory System
- Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Vestibular System