We use proprioceptive input every day without even knowing it. Think of it as your body’s internal GPS, giving you a sense of where you are in space. When little Alex, who’s on the spectrum, went climbing at the local playground, he gained a new sense of confidence. Climbing gave him the sensory harmony he needed, and his body perfectly communicated with his brain about its movements.
In this article, we will explore the connection between proprioceptive input and autism and some useful strategies to help your little one on the spectrum feel confident in their movements.
What is Proprioceptive Input in Autism?
Our bodies are intrinsically able to sense and position themselves in space, called proprioception. A set of sensory receptors in our joints and muscles shape the proprioceptive system, which builds full-body awareness.
There are simple tests you can do to try this out, like stretching your arms out in front of you, eyes closed, and attempting to touch your index fingers. Most people can do it on their first or second try, meaning their proprioceptive systems are working just fine.
However, according to a research article published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, up to 95% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience sensory processing differently in at least one of the eight senses.
How Does the Proprioceptive System Work?
One of the main goals of this article is to help parents recognize whether or not their children are seeking proprioceptive input. But first, it is vital to understand how the proprioceptive system works so we can separate behavioral issues from sensory issues.
As we mentioned earlier, our joints and muscles come equipped with receptors that connect with the brain through the nervous system – which is why we know precisely what tasks our bodies are doing, even sightless. There are three different sensory receptors called proprioceptors:
- Muscle Spindles: Stimulated by stretching our muscles. Muscle spindles respond to changes in length and velocity, passing that information to our brains through a neural pathway.
- Golgi Tendon Organs: Located inside our tendons, Golgi tendon organs attach muscles to bones and respond to tension.
- Joint Kinesthetic Receptors: Located in the joints, connecting bones to other bones. Joint kinesthetic receptors sense joint movement, telling our brains where our limbs are at – and what they are doing.
We are all too familiar with the five better-known senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Proprioception is one of the three lesser-known ones. The other two are the vestibular system (responsible for balance and equilibrium) and interoception – the least known sense, responsible for autonomic movements such as blinking and breathing, and also the one that lets us understand what’s happening inside our bodies.
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Signs Your Child Has Sensory Challenges
More often than not, sensory input challenges are mistaken for behavioral issues. Children with ASD perceive the world quite differently to many neurotypical people. According to an article published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, they often struggle with proprioceptive difficulties, making them act challenging or hyperactive.
However, the opposite also applies. Lethargy and social difficulties are also signs to watch out for, possibly due to proprioception processing issues. Understanding these signs will help you support your child throughout this sensory improvement journey. The most vital step is to be willing to remain open-minded and not mistake their struggles for tantrums.
For practical purposes, we are going to divide all these signs into two different categories: perception and praxis issues.
Also known as sensory discrimination issues, they happen when the brain cannot interpret or give meaning to sensory input. Some examples include:
- Inability to touch their noses with their index fingers on the first try
- Struggling when self-feeding, commonly missing the mouth
- Looking at their own feet when walking (out of fear of stumbling)
- Struggles when coloring inside the lines
- When kicking a ball or trying to catch one, they often miss
- When asked where a specific body part is, they can’t point at it unless they are looking at a mirror.
All these struggles have one thing in common: an inability to associate a sensory input with its meaning or interpretation – it’s like doing the same thing repeatedly as if it were the first time.
Finally, praxis issues deal with unknown motor movements, something their bodies have never done before.
- When learning new skills, they usually struggle with poor posture and movement fluidity
- Underperformance in sports and athletic activities
- Usually, they require much longer to grasp a new movement
- Fails to remember the body posture associated with a new skill they learned
All of these behaviors tend to compensate for the sensory-seeking struggles these children are experiencing. Some adults with ASD even describe these feelings as if their bodies are numb and floating, with no awareness of where their bodies are at whatsoever.
Engaging and promoting proprioceptive activities with your kids should help stimulate full-body awareness, improve self-regulation and balance, and, most importantly, relieve some of the stress caused by all these sensory-seeking challenges. Ultimately, these activities could make them feel more at ease with their surroundings, improving their inter and intrapersonal intelligence.
Things to Consider Before Choosing Proprioceptive Activities
Before choosing which activities you will implement with your kids, there are some questions to ask and factors to consider. We are going to detail these below:
Will the activity serve the purpose of calming an over-responsive child? Or will it stimulate an under-responsive, sensory-seeking kid?
When dealing with anxious children, first identify the trigger points for anxiety. These could vary from a playground, a school assembly, lunchtime, etc. Once you’ve identified these triggers, introduce the activity before they can become anxious, helping them remain calm during such events. If successful, incorporate them into their timetables or visual routines
Likewise, with under-responsive and sensory-seeking children, you need to identify the lethargy trigger points when they become disengaged and distracted. Usually, these triggers happen either before or after sitting independently to work on a personal task.
Some kids can recognize when they’re about to become stressed and often ask for permission to either not participate in that activity or do something calmer instead. Try and use a visual aid so they can take this break without needing verbal communication
Similarly, some students can also recognize when they are about to lose focus and engagement and can request activities to re-engage by using visual aids
Identifying trigger points will help you determine how often you should implement an activity. Every child is unique, as are their sensory needs. Focus on short activities rather than long ones. Some tasks only last 30 seconds or so, while others can take several minutes but nothing lengthy.
Monitor how long it takes for your child to sway from lethargy to re-engagement or stress to calmness. This time interval will determine the duration of the activities.
It’s essential to know your surroundings and understand the correct place where the activity needs to happen. Some tasks are available without leaving their seats, like pushing hands, doing chair push-ups, or squeezing objects. Others are still doable within a room, like doing wall pushes, doing star jumps, and wiping surfaces, while there are outdoor activities such as stacking objects, jumping on a trampoline, climbing structures, and completing circuits
Some useful things to keep in mind:
- Proprioceptive input can be both calming and engaging
- Activities don’t necessarily have to be actively engaging since they can be passive, too. While both kinds are efficient, studies have shown that actively engaged kids respond better than children working with adult passive input
- It’s vital to establish a set routine throughout the day, at regular intervals, and at definite times.
- Before using weights, talk to an occupational therapist to make sure everything is safe
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Proprioceptive Input Activities for Autism
Before we begin exploring the vast set of options available, there are some final hints we would like to explore.
While it’s true that most kids enjoy proprioceptive activities or at least participate willingly in them, there will be some in particular that children do not like. It is not advisable to force any form of sensory-seeking activity on children with ASD.
Most of these activities stimulate not only the proprioceptive system but also one of the five primary senses, as well. Some might even promote the vestibular system too. If your child does not want to work either of those secondary senses, then they probably won’t enjoy engaging in these activities, either. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just try a different approach.
With that said, here’s a complete list of wide-range proprioceptive activities for all forms of sensory input stimuli in children with ASD.
Before becoming disengaged or lethargic, participate in a five-minute break of full-body movement with one of these ideas:
- Frog leaps
- Wheelbarrow walking
- Crab walking
- Gorilla jumping
- Rolling down a hill or on a mat
Trying a 7-minute HIIT emotional workout may be a good idea, too. For this workout, you will need a timer, water, some sneakers, music, and a yoga mat for children (optional). All you need to do is a little room inside your house, shoving furniture to the sides. Results are best if done first thing in the morning because it sets the brain in a learning mood, ready to engage.
If you’re familiar with the Tabata method, you’ll understand why this works so perfectly. Set the timer for seven rounds of 45 seconds of work, with an interval of 15 seconds of rest.
Ideally, do these exercises with your kid; be the model you want them to see. For 45 seconds, do as many reps as possible of the following drills. The goal here is to become truly tired, sweaty, and a racing heartbeat. Remember to play an upbeat song on repeat, one your kid loves!
- R1 – Frog Jumps: Hop up and down, just like a frog
- R2 – Bear Walks: Looking down, hands and feet on the floor, at all times, with your hips as high as you can. Walk forward, backward, left, and right
- R3 – Gorilla Shuffle: Imitating a low sumo squat position (like a gorilla), use your hands to balance around the room, shuffling in all directions
- R4 – Starfish Jumps: Also known as jumping jacks
- R5 – Cheetah Runs: Imitate the fastest animal on Earth, but running still, in one place (like soccer players do)
- R6 – Crab Walks: Like crabs, put your palms on the ground behind you, lift your hips as high as possible, and crawl around the room
- R7 – Elephant Stomps: With the full weight of an elephant, march still in one place, stomping the ground as hard as you can
Once you finish with the drills, cool down slowly and dynamically. Don’t just lay on the ground, but instead, pace around the room. As your heartbeat returns to normal, do some stretches and yoga poses with your child.
Most importantly, have fun and be creative! The animal theme creates an excellent creative outlet, so make sure to make animal sounds and gestures and possibly even decorate your living room like a jungle to give meaning to the activity.
Although they’re not as efficient as full-body movements, oral-motor activities are still pretty helpful in situations where you need to sit still with your kid, like a school meeting, doctor’s office, waiting rooms, etc. Our jaws come equipped with proprioceptors, and we can stimulate them by:
- Chewing gum
- Eating crunchy food, like celery or baby carrots
- Drinking a very thick milkshake by using a straw
- Chewing an oral massager
Unlike the first set of movements, which required only using the body, these activities will need props and objects to play:
- Pillow fights
- Rope jumping
- Bar swinging at the playground
- Trampoline jumping
- Ball squishing. Use a yoga ball and squish your child on the ground with it. Deep pressure is an excellent stimulus in proprioceptive activities.
- Tug of war
Children with ASD are not usually drawn toward the collective aspect of sports since many aren’t comfortable socializing with other kids or with other groups. However, it doesn’t mean you can’t engage in sporting activities with your child. You can play dodgeball, kick soccer balls, throw footballs, throw frisbees, play catch, and other one-on-one activities.
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These activities involve pulling, pushing, and lifting weights to stimulate the proprioceptors in the muscles and joints.
- Wagon rides: Ideal for siblings or that precious one-on-one time with your kid. Have them take turns pushing and pulling each other in a wagon
- Gardening: While you take care of your garden, make your kid help you by pulling weeds, digging some earth, watering the plants, and even planting some seeds
- Household chores: All children can benefit from activities involving some sense of responsibility, like helping out with the groceries. Sure, it’s a chore, but the positive reinforcement from helping along with the heavy work is an excellent way to stimulate sensory input
- Med-Ball: These balls are very versatile and all-around useful. They can roll, throw, carry, and squish each other too. Just make sure the weight is appropriate so that it won’t hurt them
There are numerous benefits to promoting proprioceptive input in children with ASD. From everything we already discussed, arguably the most important one is confidence-building and awareness of their bodies and their surroundings.
Children with autism perceive the world differently than some of us. But they sense it, nonetheless. Helping them understand how the world around them works and how they also belong here is a critical step in their development. Ultimately, promoting these sensory input activities should help a child with special needs reach their full potential and get ready to tackle the world.
Q: Can proprioceptive input benefit individuals without autism?
A: Yes, proprioceptive input is beneficial for people of all ages. It can improve motor skills, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.
Q: Are there any safety precautions to consider when implementing proprioceptive activities?
A: Yes, it’s essential to ensure the safety of children engaged in proprioceptive activities. Always supervise activities and use appropriate safety equipment when needed.
Q: How can I create a sensory-friendly environment at home for my child with autism?
A: You can create a sensory-friendly space by using soft lighting, minimizing loud noises, and incorporating sensory tools like fidget toys and sensory swings.
Q: What are some signs that my child may have proprioceptive challenges?
A: Signs may include clumsiness, difficulty with fine motor tasks, sensory-seeking behaviors (e.g., excessive jumping), or aversion to certain textures or movements.
Q: Can proprioceptive input help with sensory meltdowns?
A: Yes, providing proprioceptive input during a sensory meltdown can help calm and regulate the child, reducing the intensity and duration of the meltdown.