What is proprioception?

Proprioception is often called our hidden sixth sense. Cells of our body, called proprioceptors, located in our muscles and joints, receive sensory information when our body moves. This lets our brain know where our arms, legs and body are at any given moment and forms the foundation for our body awareness. This includes the stretch on our muscles and the position changes of our joints.

When a child is not processing proprioceptive sensory information well, they have less awareness of where their body is. They may use too much force or too little force during activities. For example, they might constantly touch things to give their brain more feedback or they might use extra movement to help them to know where their body is in space.

How does this fit with language processing?

The proprioceptive and vestibular (balance) senses work quietly in the background and without these we would not be able to sit up, move about or complete skilled tasks like playing football, making a cake or writing. The development of sensory motor skills, including body awareness, relies heavily on the proprioceptive and touch senses. It also includes postural security and motor planning which are essential for speech.

These skills then form the foundation for higher cognitive tasks, such as language processing and academic learning. These are much harder to achieve when there are challenges with sensorimotor and perceptual skills, including the proprioceptive sense. When a child doesn’t know where their body is, i.e. they aren’t very well grounded, they need to use some of their cognitive processing to think about this, leaving less capacity for attention and language processing.

What can you do to help?

  • Some children need to use extra movement in order to compensate for poor proprioceptive sensory processing. It is important to allow these children to move and not to expect them to be thinking about staying still and also be able to process language! Strategies could include an appropriate fidget toy or a dynamic seat, such as a wobble cushion, weighted blanket or lap pad. The strategy will depend on what works best for the individual child.
  • Activate the proprioceptive sense through movement which has a resistance element to it, often referred to as ‘Heavy Work’ e.g. climbing, pulling, pushing and carrying activities. The child could carry a heavy book or backpack, do some exercises with a resistance band or get on a bicycle or scooter, before they need to sit down and listen. For older children, rock climbing and rowing machines are excellent.

If a child has any challenges knowing where their body is in space, they will find it much harder to sit still and process what you are saying. Consider if they need a sensory strategy to support them in being ready and able to listen and attend.

Read Kim’s full article online in The Blog at www.speechandlanguage.info.

Author Information

Kim Griffin is a paediatric occupational therapist. For more information about her FREE SPD course visit www.GriffinOT.com/SL

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