Have you ever been in a traffic jam? More than likely, the answer is yes! It can be frustrating and annoying at times. There are cars as far as the eye can see. People around you are honking their horns and the guy behind you is riding your bumper, inching closer and closer as his frustration grows. The exhaust from so many cars crammed together is causing smog to form and the smell of gas is growing stronger. It can cause the senses to become overloaded!
The idea of a traffic jam can be used to describe how difficulty with sensory integration can feel in certain situations. Imagine that each of your senses is a car riding along the highway to the brain, where they will be processed so that we can deal with it. There are 5 of them, right? Sight, smell, taste, touch (aka tactile) and hearing cars. In fact, though, there are actually 7 senses! We also have vestibular and proprioceptive senses as well (more on these later). There are 6 cars on the road now including the vestibular car, along with a proprioceptive engineer who’s on call to help with the traffic jam. Back to our traffic jam now. Let’s say that a child is over responsive to tactile inputs (things touching the skin) and he’s just been touched by grandma. She simply rubbed his arms up and down in a loving way, and now he’s panicking! Several touch cars have started their engines and have pushed the pedal to the metal in a race to get to his brain to try and process this over stimulating input. They can’t get through the traffic created by the other cars, though. The sight car is also on the road because Grandma is towering over the child. There’s the smell car, too, that needs to get to the brain to deal with Grandma’s perfume. There are so many cars all trying to get to the brain that the child’s sensory system and body are reacting by means of fight or flight. He just doesn't know what to do and, in all likelihood, there’s going to be a crash!
Now, let's pretend the hunger car is also stuck in this traffic. Yep, there are even more cars on the highway now! The brain is hard at work and needs to process things like hunger, the need to go to the bathroom and sleepiness, too. The hunger car is trying to tell the brain that the child is hungry but can't get there due to the traffic. The potty car is trying mightily to get there, too, so the child realizes he needs to go! Cue the proprioceptive engineer to the rescue! Proprioceptive input is so vital and can clear the traffic so that the hunger and potty car can zip straight to the brain. It calms the child and, once calm, he can more appropriately say, “I'm hungry. Can I please have a snack?”. When in that traffic jam, though, his body may not realize (register) that he needs to go to the bathroom. Again, the same idea with sleep. Send in that proprioceptive engineer and it can clear the traffic jam and increase the calm.
What exactly is proprioceptive input, though? While the tactile and vestibular systems can cause overload, it is the proprioceptive system that provides the "calming" input. These messages get to the brain faster than touch & vestibular.
Tactile: this is our most primitive, basic system. Think how much a baby learns through touch - mom's chest, breastfeeding, swaddling, etc. This system protects us. It tells us if something is too hot/cold or if a touch is dangerous or loving. A child can either be under or over-responsive to tactile inputs. Under responsiveness means, for example, they don’t recognize when shoes are on the wrong feet from touch alone. They don’t notice food on their face or hands. They don’t seem to feel pain or temperature changes (you can see how this is dangerous). Over responsiveness includes meltdowns when someone attempts to wipe their nose, brushes their teeth or hair, washes their body or simply touches their arm like Grandma did earlier. They back away from peers when they approach in fear of being touched (you can see how this affects social engagement). They will often wipe off or rub over areas of contact after being touched or touching something. If a child’s tactile system is not registering inputs properly, then they can have issues with developing a good body map, fine motor skills, social skills, attachment/bonding, and more.
Vestibular: this is located in our inner ear and is associated with how the head is positioned. It comes into play when riding a roller-coaster, swinging on a swing, and looking up & down between the white board and desk at school. This system affects your balance, vision, and using both sides of our brain (and therefore body) together purposefully & functionally. Again, children can either be under-responsive or over-responsive to this input. The child who is constantly running, spinning, jumping, crashing self, flipping, etc. may be under-responsive. Since they are not receiving the "nourishment" from the input because of their under-responsiveness, they are constantly seeking more and more (like a kid who is hungry and keeps eating more snacks). This is not beneficial for being at a ready state for learning. How can the child learn, listen, make friends, and more, if they’re constantly running around the room?
A child who doesn't want to swing, slide, move over any irregular surface, or prefers to have feet planted on the ground may be over-responsive to vestibular input. He needs vestibular movement to learn about his body and what it's capable, though, to become aware of his environment and more. We miss out on learning if our feet never leave the ground!
Proprioceptive: this one is very important in modulating input to the body. It is our brain’s proprioceptive engineer. You cannot receive too much “prop” input. This input can calm overload from either tactile and/or vestibular inputs. When a child is in sensory overload, flood them with proprioceptive input to calm them! This can include hugs, squeezes, climbing, push-ups, hanging from a bar, pushing a heavy basket, carrying a heavy load, etc. The “prop” system also registers push and pull on our joints and, along with tactile input, aids in the creation of a mental image of oneself (body map). If a child doesn’t have an accurate body map, he is fearful of movement through tunnels, tube slides, and more because he relies on vision and not proprioception to know where his body is in space. Proprioceptive input also helps us know how much force to use. For example, the force for holding a Styrofoam cup versus brushing your teeth or petting a dog versus hammering a nail. Proprioceptive input also plays a role in our proximal stability, which is the stability of our hips and shoulders (the joints closest to the core). We need to have proximal stability in order to have a good base for better distal control (i.e. fine motor skills).
All of these systems: tactile, vestibular, proprioceptive, need to be functioning properly to get the necessary feedback for the development of skills! If one of the systems is off, this can affect the internal regulatory states (i.e. hunger, bathroom, arousal).
At Auburn Therapy and Learning Center, our OTs can help your child become actively involved in regulating the input received from these systems to avoid a traffic jam. A child in charge of his own sensory highway can manage the flow of their sensory cars and avoid a traffic jam. When the child is crawling or climbing a ladder or a slide and seeking his own proprioceptive input, it’s more beneficial than just a squeeze or a hug because the child learns to achieve and maintain an optimal regulatory state independently. Sensory opportunities are crucial for development and our tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems need to work in harmony for us to be at a ready state of learning. If one of these systems is off in your child, meaning he is under or over responsive to sensory input, his body might be stuck in a traffic jam and he may not be able to complete functional tasks or learn new things! At Auburn Therapy and Learning center, our OTs can help children improve their Seventh “Sense" and become their own Proprioceptive Engineer!