Hidden Senses: The Proprioceptive and Vestibular Systems
When I was in school, we were taught the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Hopefully, the curriculum has been updated because there are actually eight senses. The other three are interoception, proprioception, and the vestibular sense. While the traditional five senses tell us about the world around us, these three inner senses tell us about ourselves and our bodies. Today I’m going to focus on the two sensory systems that tell us about our bodies in space, where we are and what we’re doing, the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, and how we can use them to regulate ourselves.
Proprioception is our sense of our body in space. It lets us know where our limbs and joints are in relation to each other and where we are in relation to other objects. This sense is what keeps us from bumping into walls or furniture. But proprioception also tells us how much force to use for a given task and allows us to determine our own strength. For example, when you go to lift a suitcase thinking it’s fully packed, you use a certain amount of power – but if that suitcase is actually empty, you get a surprise when it lifts too easily! Likewise, you use less force when writing with a smooth-flowing pen than when you’re using a dull pencil.
Our vestibular sense is all about how we’re moving. Centered in the inner ear, the vestibular system focuses on the position of our head to tell us how fast we’re moving, which way is up, how good our balance is, whether our position is stable, etc. Dysfunction in the vestibular system can cause vertigo, dizzy spells, and motion sickness.
We Need the Stimulation
Neurotypical people may only need the feeling of their butt in their chair to tell them where their body is. But for many autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, we need more. Autistic children and adults often need more input for our proprioceptive system to make sense of what it’s getting. Without enough proprioceptive input, our bodies may go limp and slouchy, we might lean on things, or we may appear clumsy because we’re not sure where our limbs are. When we actively seek proprioceptive information, we might run and jump, chew on things, play roughly, or generally have trouble being still.
Autistic people often have a similar need for vestibular input – we need a lot of information for this system to do its job. Low vestibular input will lead us to full-body rocking, spinning on foot or in chairs, or any kind of rhythmic movement. Some people who seek vestibular input may tend to always move quickly; children may run, skip, or hop everywhere they go.
How to Stimulate These Sensory Systems
Since autistic kids and adults need proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation regularly, it’s important to have several ways to get that sensory input when we need it.
The proprioceptive system responds to what’s known as “heavy work” – basically, pushing, pulling, and carrying. Think of anything that applies pressure or compression to the muscles and joints or stretches muscles and pulls joints apart. There are lots of play activities that fit the bill: hanging from monkey bars, climbing on a jungle gym, crawling on the floor, etc. Full-body exercise or everyday activities like push-ups (on the floor, a chair, or a wall), lifting weights, carrying groceries, books, or boxes, or doing yard work can give great proprioceptive stimulation. For more passive proprioceptive input, there are weighted blankets, lap pads, or vests, as well as compression shirts. Or you can get a similar effect from wearing skinny jeans, leggings, or yoga pants, boots, or corsets.
Vestibular stimulation can come from almost any movement or change in position – up and down, side to side, twisting and turning. On a playground, that could be swings, see-saws, merry-go-rounds, etc. Hanging upside down gives great vestibular as well as proprioceptive input! Other vestibular-stimulating play includes jumping, cartwheels, somersaults, or obstacle courses – jump over something, drop to crawl through a tunnel, run between markers, etc. For more intentional exercise, look to swimming, yoga (especially sequences that go up and down, like sun salutations), riding a bike, or HIIT workouts that give multiple forms of movement in rapid succession.
You might notice that a lot of these activities stimulate both the proprioceptive and vestibular systems. That’s because these two systems work together for motor planning, control, and coordination.
Why Is It So Important?
Stimulating the proprioceptive and vestibular systems helps with body awareness, regulation, and stress relief. Getting in touch with the body from within helps to organize all the information we get from our other five senses about the world outside of us. It’s also calming and helps us to focus – even chewing gum to help you think is proprioceptive stimulation.
Autistic kids and adults benefit from extra vestibular and proprioceptive input because it helps us handle the sensory stress we get from our other senses. This is what we get from our sensory breaks, a way of calming and regulating ourselves so we can cope better with the rest of the world.
What’s your favorite way to get vestibular or proprioceptive stimulation? How do you know when you’re not getting enough – do you get sluggish, have trouble focusing? I often find that when I can’t get my brain focused, a few minutes of physical activity like yoga or dancing gets me settled again. Do you work sensory breaks into your day regularly?