What is Heavy Work is, why it's important, and why it helps restless children.
If you or your child get restless, restlessly anxious, or physically agitated a lot then you could have unmet proprioceptive needs.
Proprioception is one of our senses and it tells us where our body is in space, and in relation to other things. As proprioception is to do with moving our bodies, it can affect larger bodily movements (which we call gross motor movements) or smaller movements (fine motor movements. Those bigger movements are us navigating an environment without tripping or bumping into things (this can be similar, or come alongside dyspraxia). The finer ones are us manipulating objects such as pencils and pens when we write. If you have difficulty judging where your body is in space this can lead to anxiety, restlessness, frustration, and even physically aggressive seeming behaviours.
What is Heavy Work?
A technique that may help to calm a child with proprioception issues is something called ‘heavy work’ – this is any activity that involves pulling, pushing or carrying. This engages the joints and muscles and helps expend excess energy, and so can help someone focus and feel calm. So for example this could be a teacher getting your child to put the textbooks on the tables or to put the chairs away.
What are the benefits?
As heavy work activities can help meet sensory needs they can also reduce the likelihood of sensory overload leading to meltdowns and shutdowns. They can also help them recognise and understand their emotions as they have less unmet sensory needs getting misinterpreted as emotions. Our physical feelings and emotional feelings are often intertwined and can easily be confused. Meeting their sensory needs can also help with other things such as empathy and understanding others minds. This is because it can be hard to think about others or recognise and interpret their emotions and needs when you’re struggling with how you feel and the environment.
Heavy work can also help to introduce a little routine into their lives. If they are doing the same heavy work activities every day it can help give structure and certainty.
Heavy work activities
Many types of activity can be classed as heavy work. These are everyday things that can help to keep their feet firmly on the ground and allow them to use their muscles. As an autistic adult, I often find excuses to do physical things, but as a child, I needed others to make suggestions such as those below.
Lifting activities could include:
- Carrying objects such as groceries,
- Stacking things like books, magazines, tins of food or boxes – done after a day at school
- Weighted clothing or clothing with a little extra padding
- Weighted lap and shoulder pads when they’re sitting or engaging in a task
- Sleeping with a weighted blanket or an extra layer on top of their duvet
Pushing & pulling activities could include:
- Using a broom/brush/ or vac to clean the floors
- opening and closing doors
- Using blu-tack or putty for fidgeting.
- Going on a swing
Jumping and fidgeting activities could include:
- Bouncing up and down on a trampoline
- Climbing frames
- Playing with something like a tangle toy or stress ball
- Playing with a rubber band (you can get ones with increasing resistance called therabands)
- Bouncing a ball against the floor/walls
My Sensory Needs:
I crave proprioceptive feedback and without it I get restless. That restlessness then gets interpreted by my brain and anxiety. Put quite simple: if I don’t move enough I feel anxious. This anxiety can then lead me to feel sad, or frustrated, over things that normally wouldn’t bother me. It can also mean I misinterpret how something is making me feel. For example I may not actually be sad about something but my brain is misinterpreting feelings of physical discomfort as an emotion. It’s therefore very important I meet that sensory need.
Some proprioceptive strategies I use are:
- I have proprioceptive shoes
These have very thin insoles (so they wouldn’t be suitable for someone oversensitive to touch). This allows me to feel the ground and also bend and flex my feet. They also have straps which allow them to be tightened at the sides and a wider toe box so I can put pressure on my feet or allow them to move around in my shoes more. This means that rather than me bounce my leg or noticeably move around in public, I can discreetly move my feet in my shoes.
- I sleep in a floor-based bed
Being in a high bed can make some feel ungrounded like they’re almost floating. My bed is close to the ground, it’s also surrounded by walls or other objects. This means my boundaries are closer to me.
- I have canopies across my ceiling
This also makes me feel my boundaries closer to me as the ceiling is lower. You may notice that you or your children like tight or enclosed spaces.
- I do physical activities every day
For me this means I have a treadmill and my day has lots of movement breaks
- I have an active job
My work involves travel and when at home I have a standing desk, a standing rotating chair, and several seats I can use in different rooms.