Proprioception the sixth sense

The human brain relies on 8 senses to process and pass information about the body’s internal sensations and external experiences from our environment.

The human brain relies on 8 senses to process and pass information about the body’s internal sensations and external experiences from our environment. You are probably familiar with touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, but there are three other less well known senses: vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (movement) and interoceptive (internal).

In this article we are going to look more deeply into proprioception and how it can affect your child.

Proprioception is the sense of awareness of one’s own body and its position in space. It allows us to sense where our limbs are and to make precise movements without looking at them. Proprioception is an important aspect of motor control and plays a role in balance, coordination, and overall body awareness.

Why it’s important

A child who has difficulty with proprioception, can display behaviours that may be considered purposefully challenging or inappropriate, when in fact they’re seeking or avoiding sensory input. Signs that your child may have proprioceptive dysfunction include:

Clumsy or awkward movements: you might notice that your child regularly spills or breaks things. They have difficulty coordinating their movements and may appear clumsy or awkward when performing seemingly simple tasks or activities. 

Poor balance and coordination: if your child plays a sport they may have difficulty maintaining their balance and coordinating their movements, such as when throwing a ball or catching one. They might also look unsteady when standing or walking on uneven surfaces. 

Difficulty with fine motor skills: your child might struggle and push back on tasks that require precise hand movements, such as tying shoelaces or writing. This can often come across as defiance.

Sensitivity to touch: you might have noticed that your child is over-sensitive or under-sensitive to touch, and may reject certain types of clothing or textures.

Difficulty with spatial awareness: your child might have difficulty understanding and interpreting their surroundings. They can often unintentionally “invade” people’s personal space because it is difficult for them to determine the location and position of others in relation to their own body.

Sensory seeking behaviours: your child might seek out activities that provide strong proprioceptive input like spinning, jumping or engage in rough play to satisfy their need for more sensory input or to regulate their proprioceptive input. Seeking out strong proprioceptive input can help your child feel grounded and aware of their body in space or help them feel calm and regulated.

It is important to note that proprioceptive dysfunction is often accompanied by other sensory processing difficulties, such as difficulty with the vestibular system (the sense of balance and movement) or with the senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell.

Tips & strategies

Get your child formally assessed – Autism and ADHD can impact how a child processes and integrates sensory information. This can cause them to react more strongly to stimuli  and for longer periods than other neurotypical children. It’s important to note that not all children with developmental disabilities have sensory processing issues, and not all children with these issues have developmental disabilities. 

If you suspect that your child may have proprioceptive dysfunction, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or occupational therapist, for further evaluation. 

Observe first – use the signs listed earlier in the article and start recording what you notice in the Keywell app. Is your child avoiding or seeking proprioceptive input? Do they do this across all activities or just some? This information is useful when you see an allied health professional.

Create opportunities for proprioceptive input – research regarding the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy to treat proprioceptive dysfunction. is limited and inconclusive. You can however implement some of these strategies at home to see if they help your child. Proprioceptive activities, which involve movement and pressure, are thought to help sensory-seeking kids or stimulate lethargic children. 

Resistance-based activities may release pent-up energy and tension, particularly helpful for children with anxiety or hyperactivity. It is suggested that heavy work activities, such as lifting, carrying, and pushing or pulling objects, can benefit children who experience sensory overload.

References

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