Sensory Issues 5 – Proprioception and Balance

I had to do a little research for this final post on sensory issues, and as usual when I delve deeper into something new under the autism banner I discover explanations for aspects of my behaviour.

Proprioception is about awareness of where our bodies are in relation to the world around us, or parts of our bodies are in relation to each other. As a child I was not very good at sports or riding bikes or running. I can vividly remember the feeling of trying my hardest to run fast and nothing seeming to work properly. My arms and legs didn’t co-ordinate and no matter how much I willed greater speed, it was still like wading through treacle. I still have dreams about this.

Dance was different. For some reason I could always dance. Maybe it was the music? Maybe it was because the only thing I had to deal with was the inside of me? I didn’t have to manage a relationship between me, my body, and some external thing; a ball, a bike, a hula hoop, the finish line.

I quite often discover bruises with no recollection of having got them, bumping into things without realising it. I grip pens, pencils, brushes, knitting needles, cooking knives too tight. I press too hard when I write. I went through a time of snapping hard contact lenses whilst cleaning them because I couldn’t feel them properly. I wear single-use soft lenses now but can still have problems getting them out of their little cases.

I’ve recently discovered the joy of weighted blankets. It’s a re-discovery really. As a child I had to be tucked into bed really tightly. I used to make sure my blankets were as tightly tucked under as the stereotypical armed forces trainee being inspected by a sergeant. I would then wriggle my way in through the top to keep everything constricted. I remember sleeping over at my grandparents’ place. They had no heating upstairs and so our bed was piled high with blankets and bedspreads and I loved the weight of it. I’d forgotten all that.

A couple of years back I arrived in Marrakech, in April, at night, to discover it was COLD. I dived under the bedcovers in my hotel room to an unexpected weight of blankets, just like back in my grandparents’ house. Despite being away from home, in the middle of a noisy city (right beside the Jmaa el Fnaa square), and facing a long journey the next day, I slept like a log. I still didn’t register the connection though, until a couple of nights ago.

I’ve just replaced the duvet on our bed, added a new cover for it, and then put an extra throw over the top as a quick solution to the dog jumping up with muddy paws, or chewing a raw hide stick on the bed (he has slobbery tendencies). This new duvet is heavier and the extra throw adds to the pressure and I love it. I’m sleeping more soundly. I often sit in my bed when I work on my laptop. This new weight on my legs is soothing and calming.

Onto balance and the vestibular system.

As a child I loved swings, rocking horses (those huge ones that could seat eight children, at the local parks), the swinging umbrellas that went round and round, and from side to side. It was always a fine line between delight and nausea. I loved my grandma’s rocking chair.
I was also intensely travel sick. I have numerous memories of car journeys, coach trips, and bus rides and the smell of vomit.

As an adult I have to sit where I can look straight ahead in a car or bus. I had to close my eyes on one of the Harry Potter rides or risk throwing up over my trainers. I really shouldn’t have gone on it a second time. Take-off and landing when flying are horrific.

When I’m reading or writing, I rock. If I can’t sleep, or recently when I’ve been ill (with that horrible flu-ey, shivery, ache) I rock in bed. I’ve recently been given an old rocking chair. This has reminded me to get some comfortable cushions for it so I can rock to my heart’s content and not look odd.

We don’t choose to be clumsy, to need or hate weight and pressure on our bodies. We don’t choose to get dizzy or sick with minimal movement. Often there are simple adaptations to make our life more comfortable, no more different than say a short person using a step-stool to reach the top cupboard in their kitchen.



Sensory Issues Part 1 – Touch

One of the key elements of  autism is having sensory differences. This can mean that we are over sensitive or under sensitive to any one or a combination of the senses. It can mean that we either avoid or seek out sensations. Some things we are so sensitive to that we experience it as painful. This could be (and has been reported as such by some autistic people) what is behind some autistic melt downs, especially if the autistic person is non-verbal and does not have an alternative way of communicating their distress at sensory overload.

I’ll describe what goes on for me with the hope that if you are (or suspect you are) autistic then it might help you in your own journey of self-discovery. If you’re not autistic then maybe it will inform how you behave with any autistic people (child or adult) that you meet, perhaps treating them with greater kindness and understanding, maybe even helping them to resolve whatever is overloading them.

Let’s start with touch as that’s the one I’ve been most aware from an early age (although I had no idea it was autism-related). As a child (and still now, obvs) I couldn’t bear the feel of rough textures on my fingers, hands or feet. I couldn’t bear nylon socks (the new fangled, easy-to-wash fabric that everything was made of in the 60s and 70s) or crunchy nylon nightdresses, although I loved the smooth, silky feel of the care labels on the night dresses. I avoided rough fabrics or surfaces but sought out smooth and silky textures. I hated the itchy woollen blanket on my bed but loved the satin edging to it up around my face.

To accidently touch a rough or crunchy fabric is, for me, like fingernails down a chalkboard. It makes me shudder, sets my teeth on edge and makes me dance around, shaking my hands to try and get rid of the rough feeling. To touch something smooth is soothing and calming.
This ties into one of my avoidance strategies and a couple of my stims.
I once had a boyfriend (not a very nice one) who noticed that I habitually tucked my thumbs inside my curled up fingers. I had never noticed that I did that. He picked on it and told me not to do it (told you he wasn’t very nice).
Only once I self-identified did I twig that doing this protected my fingers from touching things, even the nice textures; you can have too much of a good thing you know. It is also about keeping my skin hydrated. I do not like having the skin on my hands or feet feeling dry and tight (or have anything ‘drying’ on them, for example flour or dust). This creates a physical tension inside me, like a coiled spring, until I can wet my hands or put on some handcream. As a child, the skin on my feet used to split right across the balls of my feet when I wore nylon socks in synthetic shoes.

My most frequent stim is that I constantly run my fingertips over my thumbnails and my thumbs over my fingernails. If I wear nail varnish the stim becomes all-encompassing to the extent that it begins to feel like a sore tooth or an exhausting nausea of over-indulgence and I have to stop. I also constantly touch the back of my teeth with my tongue, with the same over-stimulation impact, when I’m tense.

I can wear (natural fibre) socks so long as I have shoes on. I cannot stand to be in stocking feet.
I cannot walk on carpet in bare feet.
When I shop for clothes the second thing I do (after pre-selecting colour) is to touch the fabric. It’s a feather-light touch, just in case it’s an unbearable fabric. You can’t always tell just by looking what the fabric will feel like.
I can only wear loose-fitting clothes made from soft, draping fabrics.

Watching me you might not see any of this, other than perhaps my twiddling fingers, but it’s like a volcano inside.

Part 2 I’ll talk about Sound. Hope you come back to take a look.