Autism proprioception

Every day struggles with proprioception

I just sat down to type a few paragraphs and looking for a moment at the keyboard, I noticed my shirt was wet! I had just had a drink from a sports drink bottle and dribbled/spilled down the front of my shirt. This is an every day “thing” when I drink from a cup, glass, or bottle. Every day! Imagine how good I am at using a spoon with liquids such as soup? Many older adults were constantly in trouble for spilling, dropping, misjudging distances when sitting something on the counter or tabletop, etc., etc., etc.
Sometimes I just get tired of it all!!!!

I was constantly being scolded as a child for “not paying attention” to what I was doing and making a mess or breaking things, knocking things over or dropping them.

Even more than that, I was constantly running into things, furniture, people, walls, falling downstairs or up them.
I always had food down my front or my skirt. At least when I drank water the spills would dry without leaving a mark. I loved the water fountains at school.

I learned to leave milk, soup, and other messy things alone if I was wearing my “good clothes”.

It was not until I learned of my autism in my late 60’s that I learned that this experience is very common for autistic people. Clumsy! Inept! Uncoordinated! Careless!!!!
What a relief to learn that my physical struggles all my life were not “all my fault” and thoughtless, careless, stupid or worse!

I have talked about how uneven neurological development is the hallmark of autism. This also goes for the sense of proprioception, the lesser known (not one of the 5 familiar ones we were all taught about in school so many years ago). of the senses. Uneven development of one’s senses can lead to poor proprioception, giving struggles with depth perception, balance, poor coordination and much, much more.

Proprioception is the sense that tells us if we are right side up, sideways, or upside down. It is what tells us how much muscle we need to turn a door knob, push in a chair at the table, how much power to use to turn a key in a lock or pick up an egg without crushing the shell.

Proprioception tells us where we are in space, how close we are to any object or person/thing, how fast we are going, how fast something else is going whether approaching or leaving, etc, or if we are standing still, and proprioception helps us judge distances as we go there.

Same for things like brushing your hair or teeth, shaking hands, walking around furniture or a door frame without running into it. Catch a ball? Ride a Bike? use a skateboard, roller skates, jump rope??? Proprioception tells you how far to lift your feet and how hard to put them down, how much power to use to keep yourself going up the stairs or how much brake power to apply to keep yourself from going down the stairs too fast. If your proprioception is off, you will end up not being able to successfully do many “normal” things that most people take for granted.

Most of us have seen very small babies learning how to use a spoon. Most of us have witnessed children’s early attempts to walk or to negotiate steps.

For some of us, it is not a “learning how to do it” or a “being careful” or “watching what you are doing” thing, but a “my neurology fails me at times” issue.

For most people with standard neurology, these things are learned successfully and never much question about performance of most daily acts of living. Not so for people like me, who at age 68 generally prefers to use a straw with any liquid, who often must change clothing after a meal, who is constantly covered with bruises and constantly who often has sore toes from hitting the legs of furniture as I try to negotiate my own living room, bed rooms, kitchen, etc.

Uneven development of our neurology can result in day to day struggles and frustrations.
If you have been clumsy all your life, were scolded for it as a child and mocked or teased as a teen through old age, maybe this is one more sign that you may have an autism diagnosis, even if you never suspected.

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.