autism and proprioception

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One thing we discussed as I finally got my official diagnosis was my lack

of coordination. I tend to cut corners short and run my shoulder or knee into

the wall or the furniture. I am constantly hitting my toes against chair legs or

failing to step high enough when going up steps. I can trip over air! I often put out a hand as I walk along a hall, always hold onto the stair rail, touch things as I pass them to help myself be aware of how far away I am from them.

I mentioned lack of depth perception making it difficult for me to judge the

speed of anything coming my way… a thrown item will hit me in the face,

while driving I tend to overcompensate in allowing the space between me and oncoming

traffic when pulling out from parking or a stop sign.

The doctor said “that is not a problem with depth perception, that is a problem of proprioception”.

I had heard the term before. The Dr explained that almost every person he diagnosed with autism had struggles with proprioception. He thinks these struggles are directly linked to autism. ( that is not part of the DSM V, but it has been something that Dr has used to help when he looked for autism in persons he worked with) .

I decided to look more closely. Proprioception is the word used to describe our sense
of where we are in time and space. Proprioception uses our whole body’s nervous system to determine how to use our bodies, tell if we are upright, feel movement and know what movement we ourselves are performing… it is the sense that helps us keep our balance, that helps us walk, be seated, to catch and throw a ball, and to do complex movements of our fingers and hands.

Proprioception tells us how much pressure to use when handling something delicate or how much force to use to close the back door or how hard to hit with the hammer while driving a nail.
Proprioception is used when sitting in my chair typing on my keyboard… am I upright? Is my seat firmly in place on the chair? How hard must I press the keys to produce the words I am seeing in front of me? I can feel that my feet are apart a few inches and flat on the floor. If I want to rise, I use proprioception to judge how much strength I must use to push myself away from the desk, to lift myself into standing upright postion, and to know when I have done these things. Some call proprioception the 6th sense.

Problems with proprioception can be the reason some of us struggle with issues of “personal space”, either our own or in perceiving the space of others.

We use our other senses to create proprioception within us. Removing vision, for example, makes it more difficult to sense motion around us and relate to the motion of other entities. It makes it more difficult to judge where we are- our position in space relating to everything else.
The same for the sense of touch. Do we know we have our feet on the floor, the fingers on the keyboard, or our seats firmly in the chair if we can’t feel them? Proprioception keeps us oriented in the world. We use it in many ways every day.

My reported problems with balance and coordination are directly related to the fact that the input I receive is not constant, or is not processed correctly, making it difficult for me to keep my balance when doing anything while in motion.

I think it also is responsible for my sense of fear or being overwhelmed in wide open spaces, or when looking down on open spaces… say, from a window in a multiple storied building. The fear that I will fall overcomes me and I am frozen to the spot.

I could not get out of the car in the parking lot when we visited the Grand Canyon years ago. I was filled with terror and fear of falling, seeing the huge open and deep spaces outside the windows. I was miserable with fear and ridiculed for that!

I get motion sickness easily and frequently.

I learned to ride a bike at age 10 and was terrible at it, I gave it up by the time I was 12 due to fear of falling off, which I did on a regular basis. No fun in it for me, even though it made my trip to the candy shop much quicker.

I fell off my horses frequently.

I am overcautious and hypervigilant as a driver or a passenger, safe, but because I know I must compensate for my inability to judge space and speed with much accuracy. Thank goodness for the speed regulating devices that one can ‘set’ on today’s cars.

One of my family nicknames was “grace” because there was not a graceful bone in my body.

Do you struggle with issues surrounding proprioception? If you are autistic, you probably have experienced these issues or ones like it.

Again, to clarify: problems with proprioception are not listed in the DSM V as being diagnostic of autism, and many people who are not autistic may also have problems with proprioception. There are therapies available which may help some proprioception issues. Look up ” sensory integration” to learn more.

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