How sensory processing issues can affect motor skills

By Kate Kelly

At a glance

  • In addition to the five senses you’re familiar with, there are two more senses.

  • These two senses affect body awareness and balance.

  • Kids who have issues with these senses may appear uncoordinated, clumsy, or afraid of certain physical activities.

Kids with sensory processing issues have trouble organizing information the brain receives from the senses. When we talk about senses, we usually mean the five traditional ones: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. But there are actually two other senses. These sixth and seventh senses control body awareness (proprioception) and balance and spatial orientation (the vestibular sense).

Having can affect kids’ motor skills in several ways. If kids are uncomfortable touching things, they may be reluctant to play with and manipulate objects. This can slow down the development of some motor skills.

However, it’s far more common for trouble with the sixth and seventh senses to affect gross and fine motor skills. Here’s why.

What proprioception does

We all have receptors in our muscles that tell us where our body parts are. For example, if you raise your hand, you know that your arm is over your head. You don’t have to think about it or look in a mirror. But kids with poor proprioception may think their arm is over their head when it’s really straight out in front of them.

What the vestibular sense does

The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance, eye movement, and spatial orientation. It helps keep you stable and upright. Children with vestibular issues may not know where their body is in space. This can make them feel off balance and out of control.

Trouble with motor skills

Kids who have trouble with proprioception or the vestibular sense could struggle with motor skills in a number of ways.

They may seem awkward and clumsy. An activity like running or even going up and down stairs may be hard for kids who have difficulty knowing how their body is oriented and whether it’s stable. They may move slowly or avoid activities that are too challenging.

They may not know their own strength. Imagine you’re at the fridge, getting out a carton of juice you think is full — but it’s actually empty. You may jerk the carton up or even drop it because you used more muscles than you needed.

Sensory-related difficulties can make it tough to gauge movements for all kinds of tasks. Kids with sensory processing issues may break the pencil point because they’re writing too hard, rip a page when they just meant to turn it, or give overenthusiastic hugs.

They may not like physical activities that other kids find fun. For example, they may not feel safe on the swings because they’re not getting the sensory input that tells them they’re securely seated. As the swing moves, they may have difficulty understanding how to shift their weight to balance.

They may be in constant motion, bump into things, or seem out of control. When kids don’t get enough feedback from the sensory system, they may exaggerate their movements to get the information they need from the environment. When they walk down a hallway, they may knock into the wall to feel more anchored. They may kick their legs under their desk for the same reason. They may love physical activity like doing flips off the diving board or just jumping up and down.

What you can do

If you suspect your child has sensory processing issues, consider having your child evaluated by an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration. One-on-one therapy can make a big difference.

There are lots of ways to help at home, too. A therapist may suggest activities that give kids opportunities to use their arms and legs at the same time. These might include making a home obstacle course, showing your child how to do a push-up, or just having your child help rake leaves and carry groceries.

The point is to give kids the sensory input that they need to feel in control of their body. When your child gets this information, it will help your child feel more stable and focused. Over time, most kids will figure out their own strategies to work around their weaknesses and play to their strengths.

Key takeaways

  • Trouble with body awareness and balance can have a big impact on motor skills.

  • Some kids with sensory processing issues avoid certain kinds of physical sensations while others seek them out.

  • Working with an occupational therapist can help kids feel in control of their bodies and their environment.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jim Rein, MA has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.