Proprioception sounds like a crazy word, but it simply refers to the body’s ability to understand where it is in space without looking. When we lift our arms, kick out our legs, or clap our hands, our bodies understand that our limbs and body parts are in these positions and performing these tasks.
Our brains say, “oh, my arm is up and not down.”
Why Does Proprioception Matter for the Sensory System?
Our proprioceptive system is responsible for taking in sensory input from our muscles and joints, sending it to the brain, and determining what kind of response is needed. It’s our proprioceptive system that takes in the input from our arm muscles and tells the brain how it should react.
It’s the sensory input that our proprioceptive system is using to then relay messages to the brain and trigger reactions. Movements, touches, jumps, falls—these are all sensory inputs that our proprioceptive system needs to understand how, where, and why our bodies are moving in space.
When sensory processing disorder comes into play, our brains can’t properly process the signals telling us that our arm is up instead of down.
This can happen on a spectrum from high to low. Or, over responsive or under responsive. We may have a big reaction to our arm movement (over responsive), or barely notice at all (under responsive).
This post will be addressing under responsivity, but it’s good to understand it’s good to understand the other side of it first, so let’s dive into over responsivity for a bit.
What is Over Responsivity to Proprioception?
Kiddos who are over responsive tend to avoid movement and touch, as it can be alarming. Otherwise called “sensory defensive,” movement and other sensory input can be overwhelming. The brain basically processes it as a bigger movement than it was, which can be uncomfortable.
Research shows that kiddos with ASD have challenges that differ from kiddos with other conditions. This means that, as with everything, all kiddos will present differently. Here are some common things to look out for though:
Because the nervous system is quickly overwhelmed by proprioceptive input, children that are over responsive often try to avoid activities that involve big movements. These kiddos can easily be categorized as lazy because of their lack of motivation to participate in activities. Instead of laziness though, they are simply responding to the needs of their bodies.
Misconceptions About Over Responsivity
Kiddos who are over responsive to sensory input can seem cautious, disengaged, and prone to meltdowns. They may also develop anxiety because of their sensory sensitivities. It can be really easy to scold an over responsive kid for having a break down and avoiding activities. Forcing a kid to participate is only going to make things worse, as the sensory issues will just get aggravated. Addressing the sensory issues will naturally help with the nervousness and lack of motivation to participate in activities.
What Is Under Responsivity to Proprioception?
When we’re under responsive to proprioception, our brains react less to movement than would be typical.
Their movement cup is always half-full.
The red flags for under responsivity can include:
Our kiddos who are under responsive to proprioceptive input aren’t “getting what they need” from their movements, which makes it hard to find the motivation to participate. And, when they do participate, their bodies don’t understand where they are in space, which can make them clumsy and awkward. That’s never fun.
Misconceptions About Under Responsivity
While these kiddos can often be seen as lazy, they aren’t intentionally disengaged. Imagine that you eat ice cream and it has no flavor. You would probably stop eating the ice cream. You aren’t getting what you need from it.
No amount of pushing and prodding will help our kiddos become motivated to participate in activities unless the sensory issue is addressed.
What is Sensory Seeking?
Sensory seekers need more proprioceptive input than is typical to regulate their bodies, understand where they are in space, and feel calm. These are the kiddos that always want to be moving, crashing, squishing, pushing, and pulling.
Sensory seekers are often categorized as hyperactive and out of control, but they aren’t. They are simply responding to the needs of their bodies. While you or I may need to jump once in order to get the input we need, these kiddos may need to jump three times or more.
These kiddos crave extra proprioceptive input, which means that their muscles and joints want more signals in order for the proprioceptive system to send the appropriate signals to the brain.
They want more jumps, pushes, pulls, squishes, and crashes in order to get the input and signals they need.
As these kids also lack awareness of where their bodies are in space, they also can seem uncoordinated and clumsy. Imagine if your body didn’t fully understand how it was positioned; you would often walk into doors, knock over coffee cups, and trip over stairs.
Basically, you get a kid who craves movement, but struggles to do that movement in a coordinated way, which leaves you with a haphazard energy tornado.
These kiddos can often be misdiagnosed with ADHD. While it’s true that some of them may also have ADHD, they are two separate things. Sensory seeking is an issue with the proprioceptive system, not a result of ADHD.
Misconceptions About Sensory Seekers
Kiddos with sensory seeking tendencies can be seen as mischievous, destructive, and hyperactive. This can lead to a lot of misguided punishments, as it appears children are consciously choosing to misbehave, when it is really their bodies that are not receiving the proprioceptive input they need.
Sensory seeking can be tricky, as it may be good or bad depending on the context. A child with sensory seeking tendencies may be punished for being fidgety and disruptive in the classroom when expected to sit for multiple hours without sensory input.
On the other hand, this same behavior may be praised on the soccer field during a critical end of season game.
An occupational therapist can help sensory seekers learn the right activities to calm their bodies down before school or other moments where they need to sit still.
How Heavy Work Can Help
While strategies will be different for helping kids who are over responsive, under responsive, and sensory seeking, heavy work is universally great for the proprioceptive system.
For kiddos who are over responsive, it’s important to take it slow. Heavy work will help acclimate their bodies to sensory input, but it will take time. Do not force it or rush it. Overtime, heavy work will help, but it may not seem like it at first. Especially when you’re getting started, it’s important to work with your child’s occupational therapist on introducing these strategies.
For kiddos who are under responsive, heavy work will give them that extra sensory input their bodies need. If walking isn’t enough input, maybe skipping will be.
This extra input will help their bodies know where they are in space and feel more connected to the activity they’re doing.
Our sensory seekers will need no encouragement to do heavy work—they’re already craving it every day! When these kiddos get the input they crave, their bodies get to calm down and be regulated. Doing heavy work prior to school and periods of focus can do wondering in helping their bodies settle down.
Any activities involving pushing, pulling, climbing, or hanging can be described as heavy work. These activities are great for hyposensitivity.
These activities engage the muscles, compress the joints, and provide resistance to the body. Heavy work activities are considered to be some of the best activities for giving proprioceptive input to the body.
For the best results, it’s ideal to have multiple opportunities for heavy work throughout the day. Try to include some heavy work activities before school, at recess, lunch, and before doing anything requiring focus. Especially for a sensory seeker, the more heavy work that can be incorporated into the day, the better. So, get creative with your child’s schedule and prioritize heavy work activities whenever possible. Some easy examples of heavy work that you can try include:
Understand It Isn’t Your Child’s Fault
While all children misbehave, it’s important to differentiate between biological needs and intentional acts of defiance. For our kiddos with proprioceptive issues, it can be really hard to participate in activities the way that other kids do. While they may want to behave, their bodies are fighting a strong battle against them. With this in mind, the solution isn’t punishment, but creativity. Helping children to understand their bodies and find healthy outlets in which to express their needs is important, but they often need help with developing appropriate sensory strategies when they are young.
If you believe that your child’s behavior is related more to sensory seeking impulses than to defiant tendencies, be sure to talk with your child’s teacher and occupational therapist to develop a game plan. The quicker that strategies can be put in place, the easier it will be to move forward in a productive way.
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.