by Middletown Centre for Autism

The proprioceptive system is located in our muscles and joints. It provides us with a sense of body awareness and detects/controls force and pressure. The proprioceptive system also has an important regulatory role in sensory processing as proprioceptive input can assist in controlling responses to sensory stimuli.

Proprioceptive input can be very calming for those who are easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation.

Proprioceptive input can be alerting for those who need increased sensory stimulation to facilitate attention and learning.

Many students with autism seek proprioceptive input in order to regulate their emotional and behavioural responses to sensory stimulation.

It should be noted, however, that some students may be overresponsive to proprioceptive input and will therefore avoid the activities listed below.  It is important to find alternative calming strategies for these students as listed in other sections.

Indicators that a student is seeking proprioceptive input

  • Bites/chews on objects e.g. sleeve of jumper, pen/pencil
  • Hyperextends joints e.g. bending back fingers, locking knee joints
  • Bangs body parts e.g. bangs hands together, bangs jaw with hand
  • Holds objects with excessive pressure e.g. pencil; writes heavily on page
  • Enjoys rough and tumble play but can be excessively rough with others
  • Throws self heavily onto floor
  • Prefers to run, jump or stamp heavily when he/she should be walking
  • Likes to sit with knees tucked under himself/herself
  • Engages in weightbearing activities e.g. swinging on desks, climbing
  • Walks on tiptoes (NB there are other possible factors for this gait pattern; seeking proprioceptive input is just one factor)

Providing proprioceptive activities can enhance a student’s learning in the classroom. These activities will help a student to achieve a calm and alert state which then improves emotional wellbeing and the ability to engage and learn.

Ideas for Proprioceptive Activities

Proprioceptive activities involve providing intensive input to the muscles and joints. Some ideas are provided here but you may wish to develop your own ideas which will suit your students and your classroom routine. Think of activities which will work the muscles and joints:

  • Weightbearing activities e.g. crawling, push-ups
  • Resistance activities e.g. pushing/pulling
  • Heavy lifting e.g. carrying books
  • Cardiovascular activities e.g.running, jumping on a trampoline
  • Oral activities e.g. chewing, blowing bubbles
  • Deep pressure e.g. tight hugs

Consider the following factors when introducing proprioceptive activities:

  • WHAT is the purpose of the activity?
    • Are you using the activity to calm an overresponsive child?
    • Are you using the activity to increase input to an underresponsive or sensory seeking child?
  • WHEN will the activity take place?
    • If using the activity to calm an anxious student, try to introduce the activity before he/she becomes anxious and distressed. Identify trigger points for anxiety (e.g. the playground, Music, Assembly) and implement the proprioceptive input before these times. This will then keep him/her calm during these times. Incorporate the activities into the student’s timetable or visual schedule.
    • Some students may be able to recognise when they are becoming stressed and request permission to participate in a calming activity. Use a visual support so the student can request the break without the need for verbal communication.
    • The activities can also be used to calm a student who becomes suddenly and unexpectedly distressed by sensory input. The teacher should use a visual support to direct the student to an appropriate activity. The activity should be very familiar to the student so that he can perform it easily and independently.
    • If using the activity to provide increased input in order to alert an underresponsive or sensory seeking student, identify the times when he/she tends to be disengaged or seeking input, and incorporate proprioceptive activities at these times. This will often be before and after sitting to do quiet/independent work.
    • Some students may be able to recognise when they are losing attention or becoming restless, and can then request a break for proprioceptive activities to re-engage attention.
    • If the teacher notices students becoming lethargic or restless, direct them to carry out a proprioceptive activity, or carry out activities with the whole class.
  • HOW OFTEN will the activities take place?
    • Identify when the overresponsive student is becoming distressed or when the underresponsive/sensory seeking student needs more input, and provide the activities at these times.
    • The frequency of the activities will depend on the individual sensory needs of the student.
    • Activities do not need to be lengthy. Short frequent activities are often more beneficial. Some activities can be completed in 30 seconds, while others may last several minutes.
    • Observe the student and monitor when he/she reaches the calm alert state. This will then guide how long and how often activities need to take place.
  • WHERE will the activities take place?
    • Some activities can be completed by students without leaving their seats e.g. hand pushes, chair push ups, squeeze objects
    • Some activities can be completed in the classroom e.g. wall pushes, star jumps, wiping benches
    • Some activities may have to take place outside the classroom e.g. stacking chairs, jumping on a trampoline, climbing wallbars
  • WHAT activities will be used?
      • Wiping benches and tables
      • Brushing/mopping floors
      • Holding doors open
      • Carrying piles of books
      • Carrying a backpack with a heavy item in it
      • Stacking chairs
      • Moving furniture
      • Putting out and tidying away PE equipment
      • Blowing bubbles
      • Blow football i.e. blowing cotton wool along a table to score goals
      • Drinking through a straw of bottle with a sports cap
      • Chewing food or appropriate object e.g. chewy tube
      • Playing a wind instrument
      • Blowing up a balloon
      • Drinking a thick liquid through a straw e.g. milkshake, yoghurt, custard
      • ‘Hot dog’: student is rolled in a blanket and another student or adult pretends to spread on tomato ketchup, mustard etc.
      • ‘Sandwich game’: student lies on a mat, and another mat is placed on top of him/her
      • Steamroller: student lies on stomach and an exercise ball is rolled over his/her back
      • Applying deep pressure to shoulders/arms
      • Tight hugs
      Consult with an occupational therapist before using weighted items.
      • Weighted jacket/vest
      • Weighted blanket
      • Weighted lap pad
      • Weighted belt
      • Back pack with heavy book (or equivalent)
      • Beanbags in coat pocket
      • Weighted animals
      • Weighted caplerting
  • Proprioceptive input can be provided through resistance activities, weightbearing activities, moving heavy items or the provision of deep pressure input
  • Activities in which the student is actively engaged are more effective than passive input provided by an adult
  • Provide proprioceptive activities at regular intervals throughout the day
  • Allocate the student responsibilities which involve proprioceptive input e.g. carrying a pile of books to another classroom, putting away P.E. equipment, wiping tables
  • Seek advice from an occupational therapist before using weighted items

Dyslexia and ADHD: Which Is It or Is It Both? by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP — Written by Rebecca Joy Stanborough

Occupational Therapists: What Do They Do?  by Beth Arky

Sensory Processing FAQ by Child Mind Institute

Autism Plus Wandering by Beth Arky

The Uncompromising Child: Four Responses to Rigid Thinking by Eileen Devine

When Siblings Won’t Stop Fighting by Katherine Martinelli

The Power of Positive Attention by Katherine Martinelli

Stimming, therapeutic for autistic people, deserves acceptance by Steven KAapp

PSA: Stop Conflating Co-Occurring Conditions With Autism by Quincy Hansen

The Intense World Theory of Autism – What we’ve been saying all along! by Quincy Hansen

Metacognition: How Thinking About Thinking Can Help Kids / Rae Jacobson

Preschoolers and ADHD by Caroline Miller

Panic Attacks and How to Treat Them by Caroline Miller