This sense is located in our muscles and joints. It is an unconscious sense that detects where our body parts are in space and how they are moving. It tells us how hard we are pushing things and allows us to gauge how much pressure we need to do a task. It allows us to perceive pressure we need to do a task. It also allows us to perceive pressure (for example in massage) and resistance to movement. Proprioceptive input is key in helping us to adjust our arousal levels, particularly in calming and organising the nervous system when it is over-aroused. You can not provide an individual with too much proprioceptive input.
Body Awareness and Body Sense
When you close your eyes, how do you know where your feet are? Your arms? Your hands? When you put a spoon to your mouth, you don’t need to look at the spoon to see where it is or feel for your mouth to know where to place the spoon; you know where your hand is in relation to your mouth.
Proprioception is the unconscious awareness of body position. It tells us:
- About the position of our body parts, their relation to each other, and their relation to other people and objects.
- It communicates how much force is necessary for muscles to exert and allows us to grade our movements.
- Receptors for the proprioceptive system are located in muscles, tendons (where the muscles attach to the bone), ligaments, joint capsules (the protective lining of each joint), and connective tissue.
- The receptors of the proprioceptive system respond to movement and gravity.
- We depend on our proprioceptive system to help us make sense of touch and movement experiences.
- Your brain then uses this information to plan movements so that you can coordinate your body.
Proprioceptive sensations are provided by activities that require muscles to stretch and work hard. These activities include:
- Play wrestling
- Hitting punch bags
- Pulling heavy objects/ trolleys
- Chewing crunchy foods
Signs of proprioceptive problems:
Compared to other children their age, does the child:
- Seem to move awkwardly or stiffly
- Seem to be physically weaker than other children
- Use too little or excessive force on things (for example, has trouble attaching clothing snaps, pop beads, and Lego blocks, writes too light or too dark with a pencil, breaks toys often)
- Push, hit, bite, or bang into other children although they aren’t an aggressive child
- Avoid/or crave jumping, crashing, pushing, pulling, bouncing, and hanging
- Chew on clothing or objects more than other children do
- Always look at what he is doing (for example, he watches his feet when walking or running)
- Stands too close to others, because they cannot measure their proximity to other people and judge personal space.
- Finds it hard to navigate rooms and avoid obstructions.
- May bump into people.
You could help by:
- Positioning furniture around the edge of a room to make navigation easier
- Using weighted blankets to provide deep pressure
- Putting coloured tape on the floor to indicate boundaries
- Using the ‘arm’s-length rule’ to judge personal space – this means standing an arm’s length away from other people.
- Difficulties with fine motor skills, e.g. manipulating small objects like buttons or shoe laces.
- Moves whole body to look at something.
You could help by:
- Offering ‘fine motor’ activities like lacing boards.
When the proprioceptive system isn’t working well
Some children do not adequately receive or process information from their muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, or connective tissue. This results in insufficient feedback about movement and body position. They must use vision to compensate for poor body awareness and they have poor grading of movements. Motor planning abilities can be compromised, and fine and gross motor skills may be delayed. Difficulty processing proprioceptive information is usually accompanied by problems with the tactile or vestibular systems.
When integrated with other sensory input, proprioception is an essential component of coordinated movements, such as grasping a utensil or catching a ball.
Some children cannot position their bodies correctly to get on a bike or step on an escalator. Once in an activity, it may be difficult to change their body position in response to demands of the activity. When playing ball, it may be difficult for some children to move right, left, or up high to catch a ball coming from different places. Some children have difficulty playing with toys because they are unsure of how to adjust their bodies to appropriately move or adjust toy parts. Children with proprioceptive problems often appear clumsy. They may fatigue easily and appear inattentive because they have to work hard and concentrate to determine the position of their bodies.
Some children may have an inability to determine the amount of force necessary to hold or move things. Frequently, objects are inadvertently broken. Written work can be messy. Writing can be too light and difficult to read or much too heavy and laborious.
Children who are under-responsive to proprioceptive input may seek out additional proprioceptive sensations to increase their knowledge of where their bodies are in space. Children may lean on others/furniture for support.
There are some children who constantly seek out proprioceptive inputs into the muscles and joints because they are not adequately receiving and processing this input, or because they are using proprioceptive stimulation to reduce hypersensitivity to other sensations. These children often like to rock and bang their backs and heads against the settee or the chair. They may like to jump on beds and settees, squeeze between furniture, and hide under heavy blankets. Some children like to be squished and cuddled on their own terms. They may push against everything, love rough and tumble play and can only sleep when sheets are pulled tightly around them.
The child will likely demonstrate frequent and consistent difficulties across many areas of proprioceptive processing. They are likely to appear clumsy and uncoordinated and may often be too rough with objects or people. They may be unable to regulate their own motions, which may affect participation in sports and other activities that require coordinated movements.
Too much information
Sometimes a child may behave in a way that you wouldn’t immediately link to sensory sensitivities. A person who struggles to deal with everyday sensory information can experience sensory overload, or information overload. Too much information can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly physical pain. This can result in withdrawal, challenging behaviour or “meltdown”.
If someone is communicating by behaviour, or not responding, don’t judge them. There are things that you can do to help. This can make a world of difference.
Often, small changes to the environment can make a difference.