Thursday 29 December 2016

What is Sensory Proprioception?

If you’re like me and new to this Autism journey, you probably read the title of this blog and thought “what the hell is that?”

Let me explain, but you’ll have to bear with me as I will have to go back to the beginning.

From a very early age L used to love engaging in rough play. When I say rough play, I don’t just mean rolling around on the floor bumping into the occasional object. He would go up to O and other children and start hitting them for no reason. L would seek out rough and tumble play but take it one step too far and would often hurt himself or others. He would engage in rough play with myself and Daddy superhero and start head butting us or squeezing our arms and legs to the point that it would really hurt.

L is and always has been a sensory seeker. He is constantly moving, jumping, bouncing, spinning, pushing things, pulling things and running. He’s an insatiable bundle of energy. He often uses way too much force when doing simple day to day tasks, opening and closing doors, moving toys around and hugging us. He’s always been loud, he loves crashing into objects and people.

L has always chewed on and mouthed objects, he still does occasionally. He is constantly bumping into or pushing people, including when he is asleep. He constantly seeks out physical touch in the form of hugs and standing or sitting super close to people. L loves tight hugs and heavy blankets.

He would never hurt us and other children on purpose, but he could never understand why O, his peers and us would be upset with him. He never understood why he had to say sorry. And when he did say sorry, it was just a word, there really wasn't any empathy behind it.

We always thought that L just didn’t know his own strength. We immediately started teaching L the “right” way to play. We started teaching him who he could play really rough with (Daddy superhero) and who he couldn’t (everyone else!)

From the age of 18 months until very recently he would constantly and randomly fall to his right, whether he was sitting or standing. This was of a major concern to both us and his pediatrician to the point that we had appointments lined up with a neurologist to try and determine the cause. And then he stopped falling to the right as quickly as it started.

It wasn’t until this year when we were talking with one of his therapists at the early intervention centre and we mentioned his apparent lack of knowing his own strength and what we thought was the relation to his extremely high pain threshold.

We had always assumed that because L’s pain threshold was so high, he therefore didn’t know when he was hurting others because he thought that everyone didn’t feel pain.

And wouldn’t you know it, we were completely wrong!

One of L’s therapists started talking about Sensory Proprioception and the term went straight over our heads. We must have looked like goldfish standing there with our mouths open and a stunned expression on our faces.

The therapist then explained in very simple language that when you or I hit something we can feel the force when we connect with whatever we have hit. We know when we’ve touched or hit something too hard or too soft or just right. L doesn’t. To receive the same sensation that we receive when we touch something lightly, L has to hit the same object a lot harder. It’s not that he doesn’t know his own strength, he doesn’t have the same level of receptors that you or I have.

Before speaking with L’s therapist I had never heard of sensory proprioception. So when I got home I did a little research, and this is what I found out.

You should be familiar with the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (tactile.) Well, our bodies have two additional senses that we receive input through. I knew about these, I just didn’t know that they had names. I mustn’t have been paying attention in Biology and Anatomy classes at University!

The first is the Vestibular Sense, or the movement and balance sense. This sense gives us information as to where our head and body are in space. It allows us to stay up right while we sit, stand and walk. It lets us know which way is the right way up. It helps us to keep our balance as we move.

The second little known sense is the Proprioception Sense, or body awareness and position. Put simply it tells us where our body parts are in relation to each other. It gives us information on how much force we need to exert in certain activities, for example how much force we need to exert when cracking open an egg so that we don’t crush it in our hands, or how much force we should be exerting when hugging someone.

We know that our eyes and ears are constantly sending information to our brain about what we see and hear. Our muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and connective tissues are also constantly sending information to our brain, but on an unconscious level.

Humour me for a moment. If you close your eyes right now, well perhaps not right now but after you have finished reading, you’d be able to tell exactly how and where your body is positioned. Perhaps your legs are crossed or maybe your hand is supporting your chin as you try to stay awake while reading this! You didn’t have to think about this, you just knew. This is the proprioceptive system in action.

The proprioceptive system is primarily located in the cerebellum and it works closely with the vestibular and tactile systems.

We’d ordinarily gain proprioception input when we engage in resistance type activities like pushing or pulling activities or activities in which we’re actively engaging our muscles like when we're exercising.
When the proprioceptive system doesn’t function correctly it can be extremely difficult for an individual to sit still and stay focused. For a child it can be difficult for them to gauge how hard they can play with other children. It may even make it difficult for the individual to remain calm.

We knew that L was a sensory seeker and we now know that this is because he is under responsive to proprioceptive input. All the things that L loves doing are common indicators to an under responsive proprioceptive input!

All of the activities that L loves to do are assisting him to increase the input in his proprioceptive system. All the input is assisting him to understand just how hard he can play with others, how much force he needs to exert when doing certain activities and tasks.

I'm now starting to realise that some of the activities that O engages in are also because she is seeking proprioceptive input. O is constantly chewing on objects - toys, necklaces, clothes - and she says that she does to help her to concentrate. It's all starting to making a lot of sense!

And one of the many things that we as parents now need to do, is assist O and L to gain proprioceptive input through therapy based activities at home.

We do this by encouraging them to draw and play games while sitting and laying in different positions – sitting up with legs crossed, sitting at a table, sitting upside down on the couch or laying down on their tummies. They can gain input through using different fidget toys and playing with playdoh. We have different types of pillows and blankets that the little superheroes can stack, climb on and hide under.

We actively play rough and tumble games with L and we encourage them both to bounce on the trampoline in the backyard. But at the same time we're reiterating to L who he can and can't play rough with.

When L and O are particularly agitated, we do deep tissue massage by squeezing their legs and arms to try and calm them down.

We get L and O to help with heavy work activities around the house like carrying the shopping in from the car, helping to pack away around the house, lifting the washing into and out of the washing machine, watering the vegetable patch with a full 3L bottle of water, wiping the table after dinner.

It sounds bizarre but all of these activities not only provide proprioceptive input but they also help both O and L to become calm. The activities are giving them extra input to balance out their little systems.

We've always encouraged both O and L to engage in these activities, but now that we know just how much they are helping both the little superheroes, we encourage them even more!

It truly is amazing just how many common every day chores and activities around the house can be turned into therapy activities! I'd never really understood how occupational therapy worked, I do now!

**** If you believe that you or your child may benefit from activities that increase proprioceptive input, please speak to your GP or pediatrician for advice.****

For more information on the Proprioceptive Sense head over to these sites!

SPD Australia
Sensory Smarts


  1. I've not heard of this before, thanks for this, was very informative.

  2. Wow, interesting post. I think that a lot of people need to read this, because it's very useful. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. This is a deep post...very informative...Thanks for I'm interested in doing a bit of research about this

  4. This is a deep post...very informative...Thanks for I'm interested in doing a bit of research about this

  5. Thank you for sharing, a very insightful post. Loved it! Many Thanks, Cat

  6. interesting post.
    Thanks for sharing

  7. Wow! Everyday I learn something new :) great post!

  8. Interesting article...I didn't know about this. thanks for sharing this information.

  9. I know a thing or two about Austim but didn't knew this. Thanks for sharing the information. Helpful one

  10. Never heard about this before. Very interesting!


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