Why do some children and adults with Autism have difficulty keeping their feet underneath them, or applying the correct amount of pressure when lifting an object? Why do they seem to walk into a room like an elephant in a china shop, or send the milk container flying across the room when it is too light? Poor proprioception.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception refers to one’s own perceptions. It an unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation controlled by nerves within the body. Our proprioceptive system allows us to locate our bodies in space, to be aware of where our arms and legs are in relation to one another, as well as, where they begin and where they end. Proprioception helps us perceive the outside world, telling us whether our bodies are moving or sitting still.This system helps us perceive the amount of force needed to complete a task, and then allows us to apply it appropriately. It helps us measure and perceive distances, allowing us to move through our world without crashing into everything around us.
Poor Proprioception Can Appear as Clumsiness
Children and adults with Autism often have difficulty with proprioception resulting in constantly bumping things, falls, bruises, and skinned knees. Those with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism, can appear to be so clumsy in their day-to-day activities, but adept when they are intently focused. For example, a girl may be able to dance, or perform well while doing gymnastics, but fall down the steps leaving the stage, or trip out the door of the gymnasium.
What can help? Available Therapies for Poor Proprioception
Occupational Therapy can help children who have poor proprioception. Occupational therapists use proprioceptive activities to help children with Autism improve sensory integration so that they can perform motor skills. These activities can help children develop body awareness and coordination. Children with Autism may also find some of these activities help them to relax and focus. Examples of proprioceptive activities can include molding clay or play dough, ripping paper to make art projects, squeezing toys that make sounds or squirt water, working with objects attached to Velcro, using construction toys that snap or push together, or pushing crates, chairs, cars or other heavy objects. Adults with Autism may find lifting weights, jogging, dancing, or martial arts—combinations of vestibular and tactile activities, help in promoting sensory integration.
Poor proprioception can be the cause of apparent clumsiness in regards to motor coordination in those with Autism despite being able to accomplish tasks or show dexterity when intensely focusing. They can, for a short period of time, intensely focus on crossing a balance beam to get to the other side. However, it is impossible to sustain that level of focus in all activities 24 hours per day. While a “normal” person unconsciously perceives and is aware of each step they take, an autistic person must think about and focus consciously to perceive what comes naturally to others.