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Dog-Assisted Occupational Therapy

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How does proprioception support emotional regulation?

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You may have come across the word proprioception in a therapy setting. But what does it mean? Proprioception plays a role in every movement – without us even knowing it! It allows us to go around freely without consciously thinking about our environment and actions.

Many describe it as a hidden sense that recognises the awareness of the body. Think of it as your internal GPS, giving you a sense of where you are in your surroundings. We use proprioceptive input every day without even knowing it. 

For autistic children, proprioceptive input can help manage emotional regulation, recognise stress and identify feelings. Only by understanding emotions can an autistic child identify and respond to them.

Proprioception

The sensory receptors for proprioceptive input are within our muscles, joints and ligaments. Compression and traction of these body parts help activate them to play a role in self-regulation, body awareness, coordination, posture and the ability to focus.

Autistic children often participate in behaviours such as flapping with their hands, toe walking, stamping and throwing themselves onto the floor. Occupational therapists use heavy work, or what’s known as proprioceptive inputs, to support a child to self-regulate. These activities, such as carrying weighted items, giving or receiving hugs, doing push-ups or animal walks – all in the context of play – are the foundation for sensory and emotional regulation. Importantly, they help a child to better process sensory stimuli.

Emily and Ashton undertake do some push ups on their chairs for strengthening
Emily opens the session with some strengthening activities

Occupational therapists support your child to develop a better understanding of situations through activities that heighten proprioception.

We wanted to share the work of Occupational Therapist Emily in this area, so we shadowed a session with her and a nine-year-old client.

Emily started the session with some simple proprioceptive exercises and activities in our outdoor setting. Some of these activities included commando crawls, crab walking and resistance band exercises. 

These help to

  • Regulate, soothe and calm the body
  • Promote body awareness
  • Encourage participation and engagement with others

 

Emily and Ashton undertake backward crab walks
Proprioceptive inputs may help promote self-regulation

The activities included:

  • Chair raises – using arms to force yourself up
  • Crab walks along the ground
  • Commando crawling
  • Push-ups against a tall wooden bar
  • Elastic band stretches elastic band stretches
  • Resistance band chest stretches (standing and seating)

 

Emily and Ashton go commando crawling
Commando walking is another activity involving weight-bearing

Activities and games

There are other helpful tools to explore feelings and emotions such as encouraging an autistic child to keep a journal. The aim is to explore situations that may impact emotions and how to recognise them through bodily cues.

Emily and Ashton look at a computer screen - a log of Ashton's emotions
Ashton has been keeping a log of his emotions

The session ended with a game of Monopoly Deal, a card version of Monopoly. Players collect sets of properties that are colour coordinated. This game helps a child:

  • To understand basic rules and to follow them
  • To focus their attention on a shared task
  • To understand taking turns and the concept of sharing
  • To understand social cues
  • To encourage conversation
Ashton plays Monopoly Deal. The cards are laid out on the table.
A card game can help children understand social cues and turn taking

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