Proprioception: The ‘sixth sense’ that could be affecting your child’s behaviour

Proprioception: Supporting children's Sensory Processing with the 'sixth sense'

Is your child overly clumsy? Are they frequently tripping over their own feet, falling, or bumping into things?

Does he or she press so hard when writing or colouring that the pencil point or crayon breaks?

Do they stomp instead of walk? Or have trouble sitting still?

These are all signs that your child may suffer from a sensory processing problem in their proprioceptive system.

What’s that, you ask?

Most sensory issues affect one of the five senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, or smell. Many times these issues overlap, involving multiple senses.

Think of the proprioceptive system as our “sixth sense”.

This system constantly provides our brain with feedback, telling it where the body is in relation to the space around it. It tells us how much force to use when petting an animal or writing on paper. It senses the height of steps so we know how high to lift our feet.

In children with proprioceptive issues, the system isn’t linking the brain and the body as it should. This faulty communication manifests in different ways and if not caught early, can delay the way a child matures when compared to peers.

Supporting Children with Sensory Processing Difficulties

An Occupational Therapist is best trained to spot and diagnose sensory processing issues. They will be able to observe and categorize the areas in which a child has problems.

A preschooler suffering from sensory processing difficulties may:

  • Be overly sensitive to sounds, smells, touch, and/or other people
  • Find it hard to make friends
  • Struggle with dressing, eating, sleeping, and potty training
  • Throw frequent temper tantrums

Signs that are specific to the proprioceptive system include:

  • Loves jumping on a trampoline, wrestling, or other aggressive play
  • Stomps when walking
  • Kicks feet while sitting
  • Likes tight clothing
  • Likes smooshing or smashing things
  • Bites and/or sucks on fingers; chews on clothes, pencils, straws, etc.
  • Likes bear hugs
  • Grinds teeth
  • Misjudges how to use arms and legs when climbing or putting on clothing
  • Unable to gauge proper pressure to exert when writing
  • Frequently break toys or other objects
  • Uses too much force when shutting doors or putting down objects
  • May unintentionally hurt animals because they pet with too much force

What happens when kids have difficulties with proprioception?

The consequences of proprioceptive difficulties are many. They range from injury to self and others, to low self-esteem and lack of friends. Kids become frustrated easily and begin to notice they don’t fit in with their peers.

By addressing and treating these problems in the preschool years, you can prevent continued issues as your child gets older.

How are Sensory Processing difficulties treated?

Treatment is available to improve these sensory issues, and to get it, most children with sensory processing difficulties work with Occupational Therapists who can assess and tailor make a program of support that meets their individual needs.

For kids who suffer from proprioceptive problems, treatment goals include desensitizing your child to certain stimuli and providing proper play and/or therapy exercises to satisfy your child’s sensory needs. This is their “sensory diet”.

Therapy includes:

  • “Heavy Work” – These are resistive type exercises such as squeezing something with the hands, throwing a ball back and forth, jumping, pushing, climbing, lifting, crawling, etc.
  • Providing “deep pressure” through massage, tight-fitting clothing (such as Under Armor), or weighted blankets.
  • Participating in physical chores like pushing a vacuum, raking, carrying laundry, etc.
  • Building body awareness through games like Simon Says or the Hokey Pokey
  • Using the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol to provide stimulation and desensitization.

Early Intervention makes a difference

Spotting the signs and symptoms of sensory processing difficulties when children are young helps them to mature in line with their peers. This increases their ability to “keep up”, not feel different, and maintain self-esteem.

If you have a “difficult” child who exhibits signs and symptoms of sensory processing difficulties, seek a professional assessment. The therapists at Kid’s First Children’s Services offer knowledgeable care to help kids overcome sensory issues.

If you have concerns or would like more information, please contact us.

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