In this article occupational therapist Kim Griffin from GriffinOT will explore the links between the proprioceptive sense and language processing. If you are wondering why this article is appearing in a speech and language focussed blog, please ‘bear with.’ We hope by the end you will understand why good body awareness, or proprioceptive sensory processing, forms a foundation for language processing.
What is proprioception?
Proprioception is often called our hidden sixth sense. The cells of our body that respond to proprioception are called proprioceptors. These are located in our muscles and joints and receive sensory information when our body moves. This includes the stretch on our muscles and the position changes of our joints. This information from the proprioceptors lets our brain know where our arms, legs, and body are at any given moment. It helps to form the foundation for our body awareness.
When a child is not processing proprioceptive sensory information well, they will have less awareness of where their body is. They may use too much force or too little force during activities. Often they are more uncoordinated than others. Sometimes they can use their touch sense to help to compensate so they might constantly touch things to give their brain more feedback. Or they might use extra movement to help them to know where their body is in space.
How does this fit with language processing?
An excellent model to show the direct relationship between the senses and language processing comes from Taylor and Trott (cited in Shellenberger & Williams 1996). Their model is a neuro-sequential bottom up approach. The pyramid places the central nervous system at the foundation. The senses form the second level of the model. This includes proprioceptive and the vestibular (or balance) senses. Without both of these senses working quietly in the background humans would not be able to sit up or move about. We would also not be successful with skilled tasks like playing football, making a cake or writing.
Third is sensory motor development. This level includes body awareness which relies heavily on the proprioceptive and touch senses. It also includes postural security and motor planning. Both of these skills are essential for speech. If you don’t have good posture you have less capacity for breath, a crucial element of speech. Posture also helps to support head and neck control, which in turn helps with mouth movements. Good motor planning is essential to organise and plan those mouth movements.
These skills then form the foundation for perceptual development, this is where ‘auditory language skills,’ or language processing fits in. The model was initially described in 1991, so their labels reflect the phrasing at this time. At the top of the model is cognition and intellect which includes academic learning and functional skills.
Is there another theory similar to this model?
The Taylor and Trott (1991) model in many ways follows Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. Piaget’s model is also neurodevelopment. He identified that sensory motor experiences lay foundation for a child’s cognitive development. His model indicates the sensorimotor stage, which includes development of the proprioceptive sense, is first followed by stages which rely much more heavily on language processing and speech.
Why is this important for language processing?
As both of the models are neuro-sequential they propose that the foundation layers are essential for higher cognitive skills such as language processing, academic learning, and independence with functional skills. Both models suggest that these skills are much harder to achieve when there are challenges with sensorimotor and perceptual skills.
This includes the proprioceptive sense. When a child doesn’t know where their body is, i.e. they aren’t very well grounded, they will need to use some of their cognitive processing to think about this, leaving less reserve capacity for attention and language processing.
What can you do to help?
Sometimes children will use extra movement, be more fidgety or touch things in order to compensate for poor proprioceptive sensory processing. It is important to allow these children to move. There is an excellent video by Brain Highways describing this from the child’s perspective. It is included on the GriffinOT proprioception page, see below. The child may need to be given a more appropriate strategy if their preferred strategy is causing disruption, but it’s important not to expect them to be thinking about staying still and to also have the reserve brain capacity to process language! Strategies could include an appropriate fidget toy, a dynamic seat, such as a wobble cushion, weighted blanket or lap pad. The strategy will depend on what works best for the individual child.
Another way to activate the proprioceptive sense is through movement, this is often referred to as ‘Heavy Work.’ The movement must have a resistance element to it. So, climbing, pulling, pushing, and carrying activities activate the proprioceptors. The child could carry a heavy book or back pack prior to having to sit down and listen. They could do some exercises with resistance band before they need to sit and listen. Or, there might be a climbing frame or bicycle or scooter board in the school the child could access. For older children, rock climbing and rowing machines are excellent. The movement just needs to have some resistance to it. For some children making a circuit with a structured sequence will be the best option.
In short, next time before you ask a child to sit still and listen, think first about their proprioceptive sense. If they have any challenges knowing where their body is in space they will find it much harder to sit still and process what you are saying. Consider if they need a sensory strategy to help support them to be ready and able to listen and attend.
Taylor and Trott 1991 cited in Shellenberger, S. & Williams, M.S. (1996). How Does Your Engine Run? Therapyworks.
Kim Griffin is a paediatric occupational therapist. Her company GriffinOT delivers affordable online sensory training and motor skill development programmes to schools, teachers and parents. For more information visit https://www.GriffinOT.com/SL.
Do you want to learn more?
You can read the GriffinOT posts on proprioception (including videos) and heavy work. Both are available on our website https://www.GriffinOT.com/SL.
For greater understanding GriffinOT has a free introductory course. This one hour course explores the seven senses, including proprioception, and gives a brief introduction to Sensory Processing Disorder. The details are also available on our website using the link above.