Learning Disabilities: Spatial and Body Awareness

Learn About This Type of Learning Disability

Autistic boy building with blocks
Autistic boy building with blocks. Getty Images/Linda Epstein/E+

Learning disabilities exist in six major categories: visual, auditory, and somatic (body) perception difficulties; and deficits in memory, behavior, and conceptualization. Disabilities relating to spatial and body awareness can arise from various diagnoses, including Sensory Processing Disorder and autism. They are further divided into two main types: proprioceptive and vestibular deficits.

Proprioception: The Body's Awareness of Itself

The system by which the body is aware of itself—how you know, for example, with your eyes closed, if your arms are raised above your head or hanging at your side—is called proprioception.

The proprioceptive system is composed of a network of nerves in the joints, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues. It does not work optimally in all people, and children with deficits in proprioception may have a variety of problems in school.

A child with proprioceptive issues may struggle to control her body. She may not always know where her arms and legs are without looking. The child may be very clumsy. He may have difficulty standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, remaining still in line, or sitting quietly on the rug at circle time. Motor skills may be impacted, with effects on writing. Further, children who can't always feel their bodies may seek extreme sensations: He may delight in crashing into walls or other children. She may need to hug friends a little too tightly. For such children, the disciplined environment of a typical school day represents a series of challenges. They may leave school exhausted, unable to participate in extra-curricular activities or do homework.

Therapies for proprioceptive deficits range from occupational therapies to improve motor skills and relieve sensory-related tensions (for example, at a "sensory gym") to physical therapy to improve core strength and muscle tone.

The Vestibular System: The Body Moving Through Space

The way the body relates to motion is through the vestibular system.

A child with deficits in this area may be clumsy or off-balance, or she may have seemingly outsized reactions to movement. A child who is terrified of playground swings, or is unable to walk up stairs, may be showing signs of a vestibular issue that makes these banal activities into terrifying sensory bombardments. Vestibular issues can easily spawn behavioral problems in school; imagine a child who becomes physically ill watching others move around her forced to endure a game of freeze-tag during gym class. Seeking to control a vestibular system that functions abnormally can lead to a variety of behaviors, from withdrawal to defiance.

Therapies for vestibular deficits range from occupational therapies to relieve sensory-related tensions (for example, at a "sensory gym") to sessions with an audiologist to address hearing and balance-related conditions.

What to Look For

The following is a list of spatial and body awareness deficits often noted in students with a learning disability:

  • Easily lost or confused about directions even when the surroundings are familiar
  • Confuses up and down with right and left, exhibits directionality problems
  • Written work exhibits weak spacing of letters and words with some directionality issues
  • Has great difficulty when columns or graphs are needed in arithmetic
  • Exhibits some clumsy tendencies
  • Directionality concepts are initially quite difficult to learn, over, on, beside, under, etc.

See: Characteristics of Learning Disabilities