What are the Sensory Systems - Part Three


Proprioception – Sense of where the body is when it is not looking

Proprioception is how your body knows what position it is in. It is the sense that enables us to know where the different parts of our body are, how they are moving, and how much strength our muscles need to use. Our muscles, joints and skin all contain sensory receptors that contribute to proprioceptive input. 

Just like we see through receptors called our eyes, with proprioception, we know where our body is because of receptors that run all through our muscles and joints.  Our vision is stimulated by bright lights or moving objects, and proprioception is stimulated by pressure to the receptors all throughout our body.  Anytime we squeeze through a tight space, hug someone, or jump up and down we are getting proprioceptive input. Walking up and down stairs, playing sport, and washing our hair are also examples of activities that rely heavily on proprioceptive input.

Proprioceptive input can also be obtained by lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects, including one’s own weight. A child can also stimulate the proprioceptive sense by engaging in activities that push joints together like pushing something heavy or pull joints apart like hanging from monkey bars.

Proprioceptive input also lets our body know if something unexpected happens. For example, if you’re walking over rocks and you can feel that you are standing on an unstable rock, your foot and ankle will send this information to your brain. Your body can respond by using its arms to balance, and your eyes will quickly find a new rock to stand on.

Proprioception is also closely related to the vestibular system, and together they help us to develop body awareness, inform our sense of posture and equilibrium (balance), and help us to stabilise our head and eyes whilst we are moving.

What happens when it isn’t working properly?
When our proprioceptive system isn’t interpreting input correctly and responding appropriately, it can impact our everyday activities. Being clumsy, bumping into objects, playing ‘rough’, or kicking/throwing a ball too hard can all be examples of the brain not processing proprioceptive input appropriately. Children with ASD and other developmental disorders can also have extra difficulties with processing proprioceptive information.

A child may especially benefit from proprioceptive activities if they fall into one of two categories:

Proprioceptive Seekers:

The first is seeking and is also the most common. Seeking means that a child is often trying to get more proprioceptive input. It’s like their bodies can’t get enough of it.  Sometimes children that love this type of input may be labelled as hyperactive.

Let’s gets specific though, children that are proprioceptive seekers may frequently:

  • Chew on everything
  • Hide in tight spots
  • Love heavy blankets
  • Play rough
  • Crash into things on purpose
  • Always try to jump on the couch or bed
  • Be described as very physical or “wild”
  • Over-step personal boundaries
  • Hold onto writing utensils tightly (often breaks pencil tips or bluntens textas)

Proprioceptive Low Registration Signs:

The second is called low registration, which is less common, but quite possible.  Low registration, or under-responsive, means that the sensory input, in this case from the proprioceptive system, isn’t registering. It’s like the brain has turned the switch off.  

Let’s look at some signs of low proprioceptive registration:

  • Clumsy
  • Generally low energy
  • May not want to get out of bed in the morning
  • Bumps into walls and objects, seeming not to notice them
  • Very high pain tolerance

If a child has several signs listed above, under either category, then activities that target proprioceptive input will be meeting their needs and encouraging their development completely.

Last few words...

Proprioceptive input tends to have a calming and organising effect on the body, particularly when feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed. Proprioception also helps us better balance (“modulate”) the sensory input coming in from the other sensory systems so we can more accurately respond to it (such as the loud noises we hear or the feelings of certain textures on our skin or in our mouth, for example).

Any activity which involves “heavy work” such as pushing or pulling provides input to the proprioceptive sensory system. When children participate in these types of activities, and in the specific amount of time and intensity their body needs, we often see them become more calm, organised in their behaviour, and able to follow through with daily activities such as getting dressed, participating in meal time, and following directions. For this reason, occupational therapy professionals often recommend heavy work activities as part of a child’s individualised sensory home program (often referred to as a “sensory diet“), in order to help prepare their bodies to be able to more fully participate in the things they want and need to be able to do on a daily basis (aka – their “occupations”).