In the special needs community, there is a lot of talk about proprioception and proprioceptive feedback. Although the word sounds like a prehistoric dinosaur, it’s a pretty big neurological part of everyone’s lives.

In short, proprioception is knowing where one’s body is in space. But it doesn’t stop there.

What’s up with proprioceptive feedback?

Proprioceptive feedback entails the physical interactions with our environments that allow humans to build a sense of where their body begins and end in space, even without vision. A simple example of proprioception is this: blindfold yourself and try to find your nose. You know exactly where it is, right? That is because of proprioception. Pretty cool, right.

What is going on in the brain?

Here we go, more big words! This is a good summation from an article published in a medical journal called the Functional neuroanatomy of proprioception.

Proprioception is the sense of body position that is perceived both at the conscious and unconscious levels. Typically, it refers to two kinds of sensations: that of static limb position and of kinesthesia. Static position reflects the recognition of the orientation of the different body parts, whereas kinesthesia is the recognition of rates of movement. Proprioception is based on a multicomponent sensory system. There are various peripheral receptors that detect specific signals and major sensory afferent pathways that carry the information from the spinal cord up to the cortex. There are parallel pathways, some of which serve conscious proprioception, and others that serve subconscious proprioception. Conscious proprioception is relayed mostly by the dorsal column and in part by the spinocervical tract. Finally, the organ of perception for position sense is the sensory cortex of the brain.

In short, proprioception is a multi-faceted sensory experience that relies on many of the physical senses to help our bodies know how our body interacts with our environment.

If you really are needing a quick little definition of how the brain works with proprioception, here it is (from Very Well Health)

Proprioception is a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.

Why do special needs children struggle with proprioception?

Many individuals with special needs particularly struggle with proprioceptive feedback because many they have difficulty with sensory processing. Proprioception requires the brain to understand the senses in a matter that is conducive to the integration of those senses, so it can be difficult for a special needs individual to process.

Does my child need proprioceptive feedback?

The following list of proprioceptive dysfunction indicators has been adapted from a helpful blog called The OT Toolbox, and another blog called Brain Balance. Please note that this list is not designed to be a diagnostic tool. Individuals who have difficulty with proprioception may exhibit some, but not all, of these behaviors. Please leave the diagnosis of your child or loved one to a medical professional.

  • Clumsiness
  • Fidgeting in school or when asked to sit still
  • Seeks intense proprioceptive input by crashing into things
  • Flaps hands
  • Uses too much or too little force on pencils, scissors, objects, and people, sometimes unknowingly
  • Can be overly fearful of walking down steps/jumping
  • Looks at their hands and feet when completing simple tasks
  • Fluctuates between over-reacting and under-reacting in response to stimulation
  • Poor Postural Control (slumps, unable to stand on one foot, needs to rest head on desk while working)

What helps improve proprioception?

Proprioception can be improved mainly by giving a child more sensory feedback. Whether it’s from weighted vests, compression vests, cozy swings, or letting them go crazy with a crash pad or ball pit, sensory input is a good thing to help them build a mind a senses map of their environments and bodies.

Why do these items help?

Items that administer proprioceptive feedback can help because they help provide the sensory feedback that an individual may be missing. It works kind of the same way that eating a protein-packed breakfast helps kids focus on testing. It fills a need in one place so that a kiddo can focus on something else.

Going Forward

Proprioception is always talked about but rarely explained. We want to help you understand it in the best way possible. Over time, scientific findings might provide more clarity in the overall scope of proprioception, but this is what we know as of right now. Again, please leave diagnosis and treatment to a medical professional. While these tips may work for some, they will not be effective for all.