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Clumsy or Sensory Processing Disorder?

“Is my child clumsy or is it something more?” Parents often ask this because all children are learning how to use their bodies effectively and fall, bump and bruise. But some just seem to be more prone to accidents and crashes. If this is the case, I start looking for other signs of Sensory Processing Disorder.

Proprioception, or the sensory system that is often associated with clumsiness and body awareness, is one of several areas that may be impacted by Sensory Processing Disorder.

What are the signs of proprioceptive challenges?

These kids may trip a lot, run into things, bump into furniture and simply have more accidents and little injuries than their peers. Sometimes they hug, touch and play too rough. They may have poor awareness of where they are in space. They often do not effectively understand how hard, soft, fast, or slow they are moving their body either. 

Proprioception starts at the receptors in the muscles, connective tissue (ligaments, tendons) and between the joints themselves. Then the nervous systems sends the brain signals to interpret. The brain then sends back a response, if needed, to push, pull, kick, or step harder or softer, etc.

There are two types of proprioceptive input- active and passive. Active proprioceptive input is the kind received by the child using their own muscles. Passive proprioceptive input is done to the child by either another person, objects, small spaces or tight clothing. Both these types of input help a child learn about position and how to move their body.

What should you work on with a proprioceptive challenged child? As always, start with a daily sensory diet. If you want an easy way to get started, try Sensory Sid Activity Cards. A sensory diet targets more than just proprioception but will get the whole sensory system running more smoothly with time as well as help with regulation.

What is heavy work?

To particularly target the proprioceptive system, focus on what we call heavy work activities. These are the type of activities that require good muscle use. Incidentally, these often help release some energy and prepare to focus. Heavy work activities are generally very grounding (help a child feel secure and comfortable in their body).

Animal walks, carrying, pushing or pulling heavy things work well. Any kind of exercise, jumping rope, yoga poses, are great too. I try to slip these activities in at home before and as short breaks from focused learning.

Don’t forget the passive input!

Passive proprioceptive input (pressure provided by something besides the child) is typically calming and great to do before activities that may overwhelm a child. Passive input activities can be done using compression clothing, being squeezed in a tight space, deep pressure input, vibration, massages, and joint compressions.

Joint compressions are a staple way to provide this input in the clinic, and this is simply because this sends specific and direct input to where it works best, right in the major joints of the body. You can do these at home, in the car, or at events. Learn about how here. Kids often stop talking and hold still when receiving these when this particular input is really craved.

Working on the proprioceptive system is so important—for helping children use their bodies effectively, navigating the spaces around them, feeling grounded in their bodies and ready to focus.

Moving forward

As always, reach out to your pediatrician with questions on direction, diagnosing and next steps. Ask for an Occupational Therapy referral to get help with Sensory Processing Disorder. OTs are instrumental in targeting ways to help your child improve their proprioception.

If you feel that your child is struggling with clumsiness, following the steps above can make real changes in how their body and brain process proprioceptive input. Overtime you can see big steps forward in both their body awareness and how they are able to move their body more effectively.

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