If you’re like most of us, growing up you learned there were five senses - sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. For some reason, the other two “forgotten senses” - proprioception and vestibular were never taught. Maybe it’s because they have long, funny names but maybe it’s also because they are much more complex than the other five.
Regardless of the reason, it IS important to learn about them because they largely affect a child’s development. Oftentimes, the children we treat in our clinic have difficulty with things that relate directly to one or both of these senses.
We use all seven of our senses to understand the world around us. Our brain processes that information to tell our body how to respond. When that process doesn’t work the way that it should, the ability to complete everyday, otherwise “easy” activities become that much harder.
Like the other five senses, children can either have an over-reaction or under-reaction to these senses which can explain difficulties that get in the way of their everyday “job” of being a kid.
We’ll start first with proprioception . . .
Proprioception is the body’s ability to know where we are in space. Huh, you may be asking yourself? You may see now why it’s not often talked about. The receptors for this system are found in our muscles and joints and send information to our brain about where our body is, related to other objects, and how much force we’re using to do various activities.
Examples are probably easiest when it comes to explaining difficulties with proprioceptive processing:
Frequent crashing, bumping, climbing, falling, or jumping
Frequent kicking while sitting or stomping feet while walking
Enjoys deep pressure or being "squished"; Prefers tight clothing
Uses too much force when writing or coloring
Plays too rough with other children
Misjudges the amount of force required to pick up objects
The vestibular system is also known as our balance center. It’s responsible for receiving information regarding our body’s movement in space as well as the acceleration and deceleration of movement. The receptors for this system are in the inner ear and are stimulated by changes in head position.
Again, another probably easier explained by examples of red flags of difficulties with vestibular processing:
Dislikes or seeks out activities requiring feet to leave the ground
Moving slowly or cautiously; Frequent motion sickness or dizziness
Appearing to never become dizzy with excessive spinning
Poor safety awareness or impulsive jumping, running and/or climbing
Dislikes/prefers changes in positions
Rocking, spinning, twirling, or frequent head tilting
It’s important to understand that all of us have different sensory preferences or levels of tolerance to all seven senses. That doesn’t mean all of us need to be in some sort of occupational therapy. The challenge becomes when a child is limited or unable to participate in daily life skills, whether it’s self-care skills or simply enjoying playing with their friends.
Our therapists can help by identifying how your child is interpreting and responding to sensory information. It’s our goal to work with your child and your family to develop appropriate responses and increase his or her engagement with his or her sensory environment in a fun and active way!