Proprioception and Deep Touch Input

Proprioception is the term used to describe the sensory input, which is provided to the muscles and joints when the body engages in resisted activity. It is the type of input, which is inherent in all tasks offering traction or compression of the joints in active resisted movement. Proprioceptive input can be very calming and organising, provided that the input is offered without excitatory movement input, or excitatory emotional activity.

When a bug crawls on your arm, you sense it and flick it away. When your skin itches, you give the itchy place a rub or a scratch to take away the itch. When the noise level around you is too high, you move to another room in the house. When something pokes you, you move away to avoid being poked. If the sun reflects into your eyes, you shut them tightly.

We all know how to react and what sensory or movement strategy to adopt to let ourselves feel good or to avoid something, which does not feel good.

Sometimes we also use sensory and movement strategies, which do not appear to be provoked - imagine you’re driving your car on a busy freeway, you’ve observed appropriate following distance from the car in front of you. Suddenly, with no warning, a car pulls in directly in front of you! Reflexively, you slam on brakes and narrowly avoid crashing into him. Your heart is pounding, you’re gasping for breath and you curse loudly. You clench your fist tightly and thump it on the steering wheel; that feels better - Bashing things and hitting things can help us to release some pent up energy and can help our nervous systems to get back into a state of balance. Similarly, tensing mus­cles in your neck and jaw can help you to focus your attention more effectively on solving a difficult problem, or on executing a very delicate task. Biting your top lip as you manage a complex mental calculation can help you to resolve it better. We use these and plenty of other subtle (and not so subtle) sensory and motor strategies to optimize the way our bodies work.

Most of the strategies described here involve giving your hands or your mouth some extra pressure either to the skin or to the joints. The deep pressure and joint compression helps our nervous systems to organise better as we go about our day. Overuse of any of the strategies might, however, pose a problem. For example, if you clench your jaw or tense your neck    muscles continuously you will end up with neck tension, pos­tural problems, and possibly even temporo-mandibular joint syndrome, in which the jaw becomes dysfunctional. We often see little children who end up biting on toys and on their clothing in an effort to try to provide them with this organising input. This too can become a dysfunctional adjustment pattern.  Biting nails, chewing pencils, grinding teeth, head banging; there is an endless list of inappropriate behaviours, which were initially organising for the individual.

Sometimes the deep pressure seeking is more subtle, and you will simply see that the individual uses more pressure or force when handling toys or objects. These children are rough and tend to be destructive with toys. As adults, they might also tend to give bigger bear hugs and to give a firmer handshake than is necessary.

Playing with soft, squishy, stretchy, or rubbery toys can offer a child organising  proprioceptive input, which can assist the child or adult to “self-calm” or to organise their nervous system. Encouraging a young child to play with Playdough can be most organising, particularly if they use their hands to squish, squeeze, and squash the dough rather than to simply use rolling pins and cutters. Similarly, playing with squishy, stretchy fidget toys or stress balls in the classroom can make it easier for a child to still, and to concentrate on the lesson. Giving a child a big deep pressure hug, provided of course that he is happy to be hugged, can offer thoroughly organising input to his nervous system. Observe the child’s reaction and work out, which type of deep pressure input, or resisted play with toys, works for him. Involve the child in working out what works for him or her as this will assist them in selecting their own sensory organizing tools.