Our bodies have an intrinsic ability to sense and position themselves in space, called proprioception. A set of sensory receptors in our joints, muscles, and skin shape the proprioceptive system, responsible for building 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, up to 95% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience sensory processing differently in at least one of the eight senses (more on those below), leading us to the main objective of this article – to explain how proprioceptive input can support children with autism with sensory issues. Additionally, you will find a list of simple proprioceptive activities to do with your children – including heavy lifting, pushing, stretching, and applying deep pressure (among others), all designed to promote and improve fine motor skills by stimulating the proprioceptive system.
The Proprioceptive System – how it works
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.
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As we mentioned earlier, our skin, 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. In short, there are three different sensory receptors, called proprioceptors:
Stimulated by stretching our muscles. These receptors respond to changes in length and velocity, passing that information to our brains through a neural pathway
Golgi Tendon Organs
Located inside our tendons, they attach muscles to bones, and they respond to tension
Joint Kinesthetic Receptors
Located in the joints, connecting bones to other bones. They 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, breathing, and also the one that lets us understand what’s going on inside our bodies.
Signs your child has sensory challenges – why proprioception matters
More often than not, sensory input challenges are mistaken for behavioral issues. Children with ASD perceive the world quite differently to many neurotypical people. They often struggle with proprioceptive difficulties, making them act challenging or hyperactive.
However, the opposite also applies. Lethargy and clumsiness 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 his/her struggles for tantrums.
For practical purposes, we are going to divide all these signs into three different categories: perception, modulation, and praxis issues.
Also known as sensory discrimination issues, they happen when the brain is unable to 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, often misses
- When asked where a specific body part is, they can’t point at it unless 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 over and over again as if it were the first time.
There are two sub-classes within this category: over-responsive and under-responsive issues. The first one is also known as proprioceptive avoidance (associated with lethargy). The second kind is also called proprioceptive input seeking (linked with hyperactivity).
1. Over-responsive issues
- Prefers to sit at all times
- Avoids physical contact with other people
- A strong dislike of sports and physical activities
- Lack of coordination
- Struggles when going up or down the stairs
- Inability to climb ladders, steps, ropes, and other structures
- Very light writing pressure, barely readable
- Poor body posture
- Overall lethargy and lack of energy
2. Under-responsive issues
- Always on the move and can hardly sit still
- Rough movements, bumping into walls and other people, hurting others accidentally
- Aggressiveness, including biting, kicking, hitting, pushing, etc.
- Can’t walk lightly, but instead, they thump
- Preference for jumping, swinging, running, and intense active movements
- High energy reserves, as if they can’t grow tired
- Vigorous oral activity, chewing and biting objects
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.
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Proprioceptive activities – things to consider first
Before choosing which activities you are going to implement with your kids, there are some questions to ask and factors to consider. We are going to detail these below:
1. The purpose
- Basically, will the activity serve the purpose of calming an over responsive child? Or will it stimulate an under responsive, sensory seeking kid?
2. The time
- When dealing with anxious children, first identify the trigger points for anxiety. These could vary from a playground, a school assembly, lunchtime, and others. Once you’ve identified these triggers, introduce the activity before they have the chance to 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
- Previously known activities are quite handy when a student becomes suddenly distressed by sensory input. You can use a visual aid to direct their attention toward the task and away from the distress. Note that this will only work with previously practiced activities
- For both over and under responsive children, there is an appropriate proprioceptive activity. In both cases, they can become leaders of a group activity, as well
3. The frequency
- 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 from stress to calmness. This time interval will determine the duration of the activities
4. The place
- 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
- Finally, there are outdoor activities such as stacking objects, jumping on a trampoline, climbing structures, and completing circuits
5. Final pointers
- 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
- Proprioceptive activities combine particularly well with teaching responsibilities. Tasks like carrying books, putting away toys and equipment, and wiping tables and chairs are excellent choices
- Before using weights, talk to an occupational therapist to make sure everything is safe
Proprioceptive activities – ideas and suggestions
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
1.1. 7-Minute HIIT Emotional Workout
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 on 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 goes back to normal, do some stretches and yoga poses with your child.
Most importantly, have fun and be creative! The animal theme makes for an excellent creative outlet, so make sure to make animal sounds and gestures, possibly even decorate your living room like a jungle to give meaning to the activity.
2. Oral-motor activities
Not as efficient as full-body movements, but 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
3. Dynamic activities
Unlike the first set of movements, that 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 activity with your child.
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You can play dodgeball, kick soccer balls, throw footballs, throw frisbees, play catch, and other one-on-one activities.
5. Heavy-duty activities
These activities involve pulling, pushing, 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 by pushing and pulling each other in a wagon
- Gardening: While you take care of your garden, make your kid help you by pulling weeds, dig some earth, water the plants, and even plant some seeds
- House-hold chores: All children can benefit from activities that also involve 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 are excellent ways 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 too, 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.