My sister says it was always me who knocked over my coke in the Wimpy when we were kids. I remember exasperated cries of “it would be you” and “not again” and “why don’t you take more care?” But I never knew the answers. Over the years, I developed strategies to avoid knocking over my drink, but it still happens. It seems I was born clumsy, and there’s only so much I can do about that.
I can parallel park and I can sew, but I can’t walk through a door without colliding with it. Nor can I put a mug away in the cupboard without crashing it against the shelf. Nor can I drink a cup of tea without knocking my teeth (or spilling it). My limbs carry a dozen bruises at any one time, only a couple of which I can ever explain. As a child, I was on first-name terms with staff in the local A&E. In short, I’m accident prone. And my small girl is the same.
Proprioception, often referred to as a sixth sense, controls your ability to know where your body is without visual reference to it: proprioception is what lets you touch your nose with your eyes closed. It’s a sense we take entirely for granted; but imagine life without it*. Imagine having to watch your hand as it reaches to pick up that coffee. All the time you must make judgements: not only about where your hand is in relation to the cup, but where your hand is in relation to you. It would be like operating a remotely-controlled robotic hand, except that once you have the cup, you can feel it’s warmth against your skin. However, if you close your eyes, you immediately lose track of the cup’s position, and are unable to bring it to your lips, because you no longer know where it is. Imagine that.
Many aspies have issues with proprioception. This is not the same as spacial awareness – I can easily judge, for example, if my car will fit into that parking space – It’s only a problem with where the various parts of my body are in relation to everything else, including other parts of my body. Yes, I’ve been known to smack myself in the face by mistake.
I am teaching the small girl the strategies I’ve worked out: to keep her cup away from the edge of the table (and not in line with anything she might reach for); to tie back her hair and roll up her sleeves before a meal; to “concentrate on avoiding things in her way” (“look where you’re going” is not a useful instruction for an aspie). But still, she spills her drink, dunks her cuff in her food, and covers her limbs in bruises. Just like her mother.
It doesn’t help that she, also like me, is hypersensitive to touch. We feel more than other people. The oft-cited analogy, of the lightest brush feeling like an electric shock, is not far off. This led me, as a child, to be labelled a crybaby. I never understood why people didn’t understand how much it hurt (whatever “it” was). I gradually learned that an injury didn’t count if I had nothing to show for it, and subsequently never understood why things hurt so much, without leaving a mark.
So I look at my daughter now, alerted by yet another wail of pain, and presented with yet another microscopic self-inflicted scratch to kiss and sympathise with, and I do sympathise. I know exactly how she feels. And however exasperating it is that this is a six-times-a-day occurrence, you’ll never catch me saying “why don’t you take more care?” because I now know the answer: she was born clumsy too, and there’s only so much she can do about that.
Some people find using weighted belts/blankets/lap pads help with proprioception issues. See sensorydirect.com and rompa.com. See also this great article about making a DIY weighted blanket.
*This topic is the fascinating subject of Oliver Sacks’s article, “The Disembodied Woman,” which is included in the anthology The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, (Summit Books, 1985. Picador, 2011).