Self-Regulation: Proprioception

“Squeeze me.” Gabe asks for the tenth time, “Squeeze me hard mom.”

I lean over, and press his body against mine, gripping my hands together at the wrist behind him and squeezing as hard as I can. “Harder,” he says quietly.

My oldest son Gabriel is a “sensory seeker.” He needs deep pressure (proprioceptive) input so that his body can stay calm and organized. He also seeks vestibular input (that which is related to balance and movement). As a toddler he would climb to the very tippy top of the jungle gym and then stand on it. Because of his increased need for sensory input, I have acquired a virtual arsenal of therapy tools to help him meet his needs. And with my youngest son Matthew being diagnosed with Asperger’s just days ago, having these tools at my disposal has become even more vital.

For Gabriel, I am happy to report that the time and effort I have put into meeting his sensory needs over the past few years has paid off. Gabriel is learning to find adaptive ways he can independently get his sensory needs met, like asking for what he needs versus throwing himself on the ground or spinning through the house, knocking everything down in his path. Matthew, on the other hand, is just beginning this journey and I learn a little more about his needs each day. But, with Gabriel’s successes under my belt, I am optimistic that Matthew will achieve similar results with the help from the same therapy tools his brother benefitted from.

If you have a child that seeks sensory stimulation and/or benefits from deep pressure input, and could use some tools to help him or her learn to self-regulate, here are some tricks of the trade that have helped my children. (But, please remember to use common sense and consult your child’s physician or OT before trying any of the therapy tools / techniques below):

Keeping Up the Pressure

Spio Suit. I have found a fabulous company that has created a lycra suit that children can wear under their clothes to give them “grounding” all day long. The theory behind this is that the gentle pressure provided enables your child to know where his or her body is in space while engaging in normal day-to-day activities. This helps him or her to maintain an appropriate arousal level while participating in social interaction, writing, and sports activities. The lycra suit comes in three different styles: The full body suit (essentially like a girl’s one-piece bathing suit or a wrestlers leotard); a long pant (great for motor planning activities); or a long-sleeve shirt (exceptional for writing / fine motor activities). For additional information log onto:

Weighted Compression Vest. When Gabe was in kindergarten, this was my LIFESAVER! This tool is really a simple Velcro vest (with spandex elasticity) that fits tightly around the child’s chest. The pressure from the tight vest aids in self-regulation by giving consistent proprioceptive input to aid self-regulation and to provide calming input. It contains small pockets around the outside so that you can add weights. This allows you to control how heavy it is based on your child’s needs or age. For example, you can add more weights as your child grows, or when he or she is looking for greater input. When Gabriel came home from kindergarten completely dysregulated and looking for input he would wear this vest, with as much as eight pounds of lead in it for 20 minutes of every hour until bedtime. And it worked! For more information log onto:

Heavy Blanket. This is a common household item for many families that have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Autism [I’m not sure what you mean, but it should be spelled out anyway.], but also one that is underutilized. Although the blanket is great for a child to use while watching TV (as a guard against under-arousal), or while sleeping (as a means of providing calming input for sleep), it has many other uses, as well. Try draping the blanket over your child’s shoulders, and have him or her carry it up and down the stairs a few times. When the child takes a step, the weight of the blanket—aided by gravity—pushes down on his or her shoulders. If the blanket is too cumbersome, try using a lap pad. Another way to use the blanket is to wrap your child in it (“burrito-style”) and have him or her do log rolls. The pressure of the blanket, with the push of his or her body against the floor, gives extra input. Be creative – this is one of the best things you (probably) already own. If not, here’s a website to obtain more information:

Backpack. Using your child’s backpack can be an easy and fun way for him or her to get proprioceptive input. If you decide to try this, make sure the backpack fits your child correctly, without being too big or too small, and be sure to use one that has padding on the shoulders to keep him or her comfortable. Once the backpack is fitted, you are ready to load it up. Make an imaginary game, like “Book Delivery” where your child carries books from room to room. You can also play “Grocery Man” by filling up the backpack with canned food items. One of my son’s favorite games (now that he is older) is playing “Delivery Guy” on his bike. I just fill up his backpack with something I’ve borrowed from the neighbor (real or imagined) and send him down the block to drop it off. Works like a charm. Gabriel thinks this is a privilege, so he is always ready to help! Widely available.

Calisthenics. With my husband being a former Marine, I find that some good old fashioned physical training is a great way to keep my boys regulated. Jumping jacks, sit ups, pull-ups (we have a great door-mounted pull-up bar right near our family room), pushups and more give the boys the feeling of being strong, and I like how calm and organized they are after just the simplest of “training exercises.” Add in a dash of creativity—like playing “Captain” instead of “Simon Says”—where the same rules apply but they get to pretend that they’re in the Marines (or in Star Wars, as the case may be!). Widely available.

To summarize, seeing to it that children get the proprioceptive input their bodies need, can have a huge impact on behavior, which can help with social acceptance and self-esteem. Many of these items can be easily incorporated into your child’s daily routine at school (often going unnoticed by peers) as a part of his or her sensory diet. Just remember, a small amount of proprioceptive input can have a calming effect on a child that can last for hours.

Continued with ideas for vestibular input next…


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Autism Spectrum Quarterly.

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