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How Does The Proprioceptive System Work?

The proprioceptive system is the sense of our body’s position in space. Sensory receptors in our joints, muscles, and skin work together to build body awareness. 

How Does The Proprioceptive System Work?

Try this: 

First, close your eyes and stretch your arms out straight in front of you. Then, attempt to touch your two index fingers together. You should be able to do this on your first or second try. This is your proprioceptive system at work.

This post is part of a 10 part series on the sensory systems. Each part will contain a table of contents to help you easily navigate through the entire series.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction – The Sensory Spectrum
  2. The Tactile System
  3. The Auditory System
  4. The Visual System
  5. Proprioception
  6. Vestibular System
  7. Interoception
  8. The Olfactory System
  9. The Oral-Motor System
  10. Bilateral Coordination

How Does The Proprioceptive System Work?

how the proprioceptive system works

Proprioception is guided by receptors in the body which are inside the skin, muscles, and joints. These receptors then connect with the brain through the nervous system.

So, even without sight, a person knows what his or her body is doing. That’s why you were able to touch your index fingers together when you closed your eyes in the exercise above.

There are three types of sensory receptors that sense proprioceptive input, these are called proprioceptors.

They are muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs, and joint kinesthetic receptors.

Muscle Spindles – Located within our muscles, these receptors are stimulated by stretch. They respond to changes in muscle length and velocity (the speed the muscle is moving) and transmit this information through the central nervous system, to the brain, following a neural pathway. 

Golgi Tendon Organs – These sensory receptors are inside the tendons, along with both muscle fibers, and together they attach muscles to bones. These proprioceptive input receptors sense tension. 

Joint Kinesthetic Receptors – These proprioceptors are located in the joints, where bone connects to bone. They can sense the movements of our joints. So, when we move they send a message to the brain that tells us what position our limbs are in.

The Proprioceptive System - Diagram of Joint Kinesthetic Receptors

Signs of Sensory Processing Challenges Related to The Proprioceptive System

Unfortunately, the signs of proprioceptive input challenges are often mistaken for bad behavior.

Frequently, children who are too rough, too hyperactive, etc may be struggling with proprioceptive challenges but there are some things to watch out for.

The opposite may also be true, too. Kids who appear lethargic and clumsy may also be dealing with proprioception processing difficulties.

The signs below will help you better understand the challenges your child may be having with this sensory system.

Note: Temporary proprioception challenges during adolescence is common and believed to be caused by rapid growth during this stage. Children can grow so quickly that their body needs time to adjust to their new size.

Sensory Discrimination or Perception Issues

Signs of Proprioceptive Processing Dysfunction // How does the proprioceptive system work? Plus -- which sensory strategies and activities to use with kids.
#SPD #Autism #SensoryActivities #OT

Discrimination and perception issues occur when the brain is struggling to interpret and give meaning to sensory input.

  • Unable to touch their finger to their nose on the first try
  • Feeding difficulties. Most commonly, misses mouth when self-feeding.
  • Looks at feet while walking because they stumble if they don’t.
  • Can’t color inside the lines at an age where that skill would be expected
  • Often misses when attempting to kick or catch a ball
  • If you ask them where a specific body part is, they can’t point to it unless they can see it as well.

Modulation Issues

This occurs when the brain over- or under-responds to sensory input.

Over-Responsive (Proprioceptive Defensiveness/Avoidance)

  • Prefers to sit still
  • Avoids touching others
  • Dislikes sports and active activities
  • Uncoordinated
  • Trouble walking up and down the stairs
  • Unable to climb structures at the playground. For example, ladders, steps, ropes, etc.
  • When writing with a pencil on paper, it is so light that it can barely be read
  • Poor posture
  • Low energy

Under-Responsive (Proprioceptive Input Seeking)

  • Constantly moving, unable to sit still
  • Rough – for example, bumps into other people, walls, accidentally hurts others when playing as if they “don’t know their own strength”
  • Aggressive behavior. For example, hits, kicks, bites, pushes tables, etc.
  • Walks loudly or “thumps”
  • Enjoys deep pressure massage 
  • Enjoys lots of movements, For example, jumping, swinging, running, etc.
  • High energy
  • Chews on clothing and objects
  • Likes to “hide” under blankets, inside clothing, under tables, etc.

Swinging on your belly, like in the picture, is a sign of proprioceptive input seeking. This kind of activity stimulates all the different types of proprioceptors at the same time.

As you can see, this gives deep pressure on the stomach and sides, stretching up to the upper and lower joints, and tension from moving in a swinging motion.

Praxis Issues

Praxis issues are related to planning and executing motor movements that the body has not done before. 

  • When learning new skills/movements your child may struggle with postural problems, fluidity of movement, and control of movement.
  • Poor athletic performance
  • Requires extra time to learn and practice new movements
  • Struggles to position the body correctly when learning new activities

Strategies for Managing Proprioceptive Processing Differences

There are tons of resources on the blog that include proprioceptive input activities and these are among the most popular posts I have written.

Check some of them out here:

For Over-Responsiveness:

  • Both over- and under-responsive children benefit from additional proprioceptive input but respect your child’s preferences. If they ask you to stop an activity, stop right away. Focus on calming activities versus active ones.
  • Weighted blankets, lap pads, weighted vests, ankle weights, etc can help build proprioceptive awareness
  • Deep pressure massage
  • Allow extra time for learning new movements, teach in a 1:1 environment

For Under-Responsiveness

  • Heavy work activities – pushing, pulling, lifting, tug-o-war
  • Stretching activities – Yoga, animal movements, Simon Says
  • Movement activities – Keep active – trampolines, running, playground, sports, etc.
  • Deep pressure – weighted blankets. resistance tunnels, massage, bear hugs

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