Heavy Work: WHAT it is and WHY your child needs it

“Heavy work” is kind of a buzz term in the pediatric therapy world. You’ve probably heard it a lot. You’ve probably been given handouts on it. Your friendly neighborhood OT has reviewed it with you (a dozen times if he/she is as awesome as MY friendly neighborhood OT is). But……..do you really remember what it is and why your child needs it?

If not, that’s ok. Let’s review. If you’ve never heard of it, prepare to be blown away.

Heavy work also goes with the word proprioception. Proprioception pretty much means body awareness- knowing where your body is in its environment, which is important because that’s how you navigate yourself around safely. When your child is doing heavy work activities, those activities are giving heavy resistance to their joints and muscles. When their joints and muscles get that input, it better helps them be aware of their body. Aside from being able to safely navigate through a classroom, playground equipment, your home, etc., this also is essential for things like balance and posture as well. This kind of input is also calming and can help your child’s attention span also. Socially, it also helps kids understand the concept of personal space by aiding with those body awareness abilities.¬†Important note: this is different from vision. Some parents may confuse poor proprioceptive abilities as poor visual abilities but this it likely not the case. Call up that friendly neighborhood OT or your pediatrician if you have further questions on that ūüôā¬†

So, why do we find that so many children with Autism have poor body awareness abilities and proprioceptive dysfunction? While exact figures vary, it is safe to say that the MAJORITY of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have sensory processing deficits in some capacity- whether they are over responsive or under responsive to sensory input doesn’t matter. Proprioceptive dysfunction is a¬†type of sensory processing deficit. So, it is not uncommon for professionals to treat a lot of children who need help with heavy work activities because it is an example of a sensory processing deficit, which is so extremely common in children with Autism.¬†Another important note! Sensory Processing Disorder is NOT ADHD and it is NOT a diagnosis to be given in place of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Also, you can have Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory processing deficits WITHOUT having Autism.¬†

Ok, now we know the definition of heavy work, why it is important, and even why we see it so often in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now…….what does it look like in¬†real world terms????

Here are some examples:

Proprioceptive Avoiding Behaviors: 

– mistaken as “lazy”: may avoid “active” activities or be overly cautious during play

– avoids touch or tight clothing

– can seem uncoordinated: difficulty with stairs, for example

– may prefer quiet environments

Proprioceptive Seeking Behaviors:

– runs into people or objects

– plays roughly or seeks out “extremes”: climbing TOO high, for example

– uses a lot of pressure when touching people or things or touches people and things with extreme frequency

– difficulty understanding personal space

– chews on objects

– walks loudly (stomping)

Other signals that you may see in a child with proprioceptive deficits may include poor posture (slumping over on their desk) or difficulty with motor planning (riding a bike).

Now…..how can we address proprioceptive dysfunction? I’m so glad you asked! Remember that friendly neighborhood OT I’ve been carrying on about for the last few paragraphs? Go see her or him! Remember- I am a speech therapist, not an occupational therapist. However, I do consider myself qualified to speak on the matter of heavy work because proprioceptive sensory seeking behaviors are seen¬†daily¬† in my home. “Why have my dining room chairs been pushed into various corners of the house?” Caleb needed some heavy work. “Why does he want to stand and open and close the cabinet door without plundering through the cabinet’s contents?” Cause he needed some heavy work. “What was that loud “thump” coming from the playroom?” Caleb jumping from the book-less built-in bookcase because he needed heavy work. Also, note my responses to those self-imposed questions……Caleb¬†needed heavy work.¬†He wasn’t being defiant. He doesn’t have parents who don’t discipline him.¬†His sensory system is not integrated typically like yours and mine and in order for him to do all of the things expected of him in a given day, he¬†needs proprioceptive sensory input.¬†So, if my son jumping down your hallway in a Thor’s hammer sort-of-way is going to nudge your chotchkies off the display shelves on your wall, just don’t invite us over. We’ll meet you at the park instead.

I’m not going to make an extensive list of heavy work activities for you because I’d have to sit here all night. While the description of heavy work and proprioceptive input may seem complicated, the good news is that the solutions ARE NOT. Heavy work activities are some of the easiest and most functional activities that you could ever possibly incorporate into your daily routine with minimal effort. Click here to see my “Heavy Work” idea board on Pinterest. And also- because you know I can barely go a whole post without showing you what Caleb’s into- read about some of his favorite heavy work activities below!

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Climbing…..

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…..all of the climbable things.

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Especially up the slide. That’s one of the best!

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Is that outdoor play equipment that used to live inside my house because 18 months ago our need for heavy work was that intense? You bet. It lives outside now, like it’s supposed to. Because we’ve been working¬†hard.

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Jumping.

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Jumping AND wrestling is an even better combination.

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Jumping to wake up sissy also counts.

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Throwing, kicking, etc.

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Running. Especially up an incline.

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Swimming. Kicking those legs against the resistance of the water? Heavy work ALL THE WAY. And you get to stay cool because heavy work breaks a sweat, ya’ll!

Before I sign off, please talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about your child regarding sensory processing abilities and any potential proprioceptive avoidance or seeking behaviors you see and ask for a referral to an occupational therapist. We want regulated, safe, and successful little ones!