Autism and the sixth sense – Steady on!

Autism and the sixth senseDoes your child move awkwardly and clumsily? Does he find it hard to pick things up? Or send food flying when he eats? Do the family pets avoid him? Does he slam doors and enjoy games in which he can push, pull or drag things around?

Such problems are linked to difficulties with proprioception (body awareness): sometimes called the sixth sense. This sense is so automatic that we are barely conscious of it and yet it is vital to our well being for it makes us feel safe and secure in our movements and actions.

Body sense enables us to orientate ourselves in space.  It lets us know where our arms and legs begin and end and where they are in relation to one another, allowing us to move without crashing into the things around us. It also helps us to know whether our bodies are moving or sitting still so that we can move around without having to look at our feet all the time and sit upright without keeling over.

This proprioceptive system also helps us judge how much force is needed to manipulate objects.  Without it even the simplest tasks can be problematic and make the child seem like that proverbial bull in a china shop because he is so clumsy and uncoordinated.  This is the child who complains that his glass of milk is really too heavy and cannot pick it up.  Or alternatively picks it up so forcefully that it flies across the room because it was lighter than he expected. The child whose food flies off in all directions as he eats. Whose writing is either so light that it is almost invisible or is extremely messy and full of marks that tear holes in the page. The child who unintentionally hurts the family pet because he is too forceful when he tries to stroke or play with it.

How does this fit with ASD? In her book Twirling Naked in the Streets and No One Noticed; Growing Up With Undiagnosed Autism Jeannie Davide-Rivera suggests that this is a major factor for some children. As she writes:

Children and adults with autism often have difficulty with proprioception and very well may just be the thing that goes bump in the night…and the day, and at work, and in the streets. Poor proprioception may likely be responsible for those many bruises, skinned knees, and torn stockings that plague our days.”

Body sense is involved in coordinating the muscles in the mouth too, and is vital to swallowing, eating and the ability to speak clearly: hence another reason for the speech difficulties that affect some children.

Could body sense also provide the answer to the telling question asked by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay (diagnosed as severely autistic) in the title of his book How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?: Inside My Autistic Mind? It certainly seems to be a possibility.

Such difficulties are very frustrating for him.  They will also make him feel very insecure,  so that he is often afraid of trying new things and lacks self-confidence and self-esteem.

Quick Checklist

• not reaching motor milestones on schedule
• continuing to walk on tiptoes (after the age of 2)
• poor balance – often seems on the verge of falling
• seems to have weak muscles and tires easily
• movements are not smooth and coordinated – seems stiff or floppy
• poor posture; slumps when sitting or uses feet for support
• looks at the ground when walking
• frequently spills, breaks or bangs things
• looks at the ground when walking
• bites/sucks fingers or chews cuffs, pencils, toys
• accident-prone; falls or bangs parts of body
• holds crayons/pencils too tight or too loose
• enjoys and seeks activities such as jumping, wrestling etc
• enjoys being held tightly (or the opposite – avoidance of hugs or touch)

Top tips

Proprioceptive activities are many and various and can include:

  • Activities like trampolining, climbing, digging, pulling heavy toys along, bear hugs etc
  • Deep pressure massage
  • Chew toys, chewy/crunchy foodsets
  • Stress balls, balance boards, weighted vests/blankets

For more information see:
http://www.ot-mom-learning-activities.com/sensory-integration-activities.html
https://sites.google.com/site/smallschoolot/information-for-parents/more-proprioceptive-activities
http://www.spdaustralia.com.au/
http://www.autismdecoded.com/Learning-Breakthrough™.php

For speech:
http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/seminars/proprioception-learning-new-sounds-words-and-connected-speech

Got tips of your own?  Please share them.

 Autism and Exposure Anxiety.   Don’t look at me!