The Other Senses: Proprioception

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on proprioception, which is a fundamental means of sensing the environment. Proprioception lets us know our body’s position in space.

How does proprioception work?

The receptors for proprioception are located in our skin, muscles, and joints and connect to the brain through the nervous system, providing us with information about where our body is in space, even when our eyes are closed or if we are blind. It is believed that newborns already have a sense of proprioception.

Among other things, proprioception lets us know how we fit in with our external environment, whether we are carrying weight, and whether we need to contract our muscles. It is common for people to experience temporary malfunctions of proprioceptive processing during growth spurts, when they are fatigued, during aging, or when they are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. In children, problems with proprioception are often associated with social or behavioral issues, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and other disorders on the autism spectrum, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, and may also be associated with academic difficulties.

Manifestations of Proprioceptive Difficulties

Children with proprioceptive malfunctions have a hard time understanding their own body boundaries and therefore have problems understanding acceptable limits when interacting with others. The following are possible signs of proprioceptive disorder:

  • Bumping or crashing into things or other people
  • Kicking while sitting or foot stomping when walking
  • Desiring to be wrapped or hugged very tightly, or to be dressed in tight clothing
  • Using too much force to write or erase
  • Playing too roughly with other children or pets
  • Using too much force in carrying or opening, resulting in dropping, spillage or breakage
  • Having difficulty locating body parts, especially with closed eyes
  • Needing to bite or chew very frequently
  • Difficulty climbing stairs, riding a bicycle, standing on one foot (says a foot surgeon)

It is easy to see why children who have proprioceptive difficulties are easily frustrated and may lack self-confidence. They may be teased or belittled for the behaviors they use to compensate, such as toe walking, crashing, running or flapping. One study found that proprioceptive difficulties among children may contribute to decreased motor planning and postural control. This often leads to disruptive behaviors, making completion of everyday tasks and getting along with peers much more challenging.

Ways of Improving Proprioception

If you suspect your child has problems with proprioception, the best thing to do is consult with a professional. Behavioral psychologists and occupational therapists have developed a number of activities that can help such children improve their proprioception. These activities can go a long way in assisting your child in academic and social functioning, thereby helping her develop increased self-esteem.

Some of the activities recommended to improve proprioception in children are:

  • Having them do heavy work
  • Applying deep (not painful) pressure to their bodies
  • Having them move around, whether with chores or play, as much as possible
  • Playing games with them that require locating body parts (e.g. Simon Says, Hokey Pokey)
  • Performing activities that involve imitating body postures (swimming, dancing, tennis)

Be creative about finding ways in which you can help your child be proactive in overcoming his deficiencies while having fun (and sometimes completing a satisfying job in the process). Carrying groceries or laundry, pushing a vacuum cleaner, raking the yard, climbing a tree or jungle gym, shoveling soil or snow, crawling through a playground tunnel — all count as “heavy work.” Wrapping your child playfully in a blanket and applying deep, pleasant pressure, or giving your child a massage, may also be very helpful in building body awareness. It is important to have your child accurately diagnosed by a professional before beginning a program of targeted exercise since you want to make sure that what you’re doing is constructive and not overwhelming.