Recently I was at a training day considering sensory processing and autism. The presenter asked the audience, ‘Have you heard of heavy work?’ Of the 200 people sitting in the room, most of them put their hand up. The presenter continued and asked, ‘Does anyone know what it is? Could you show me an example?’ After this question, not one hand went into the air. The room fell silent. The presenter began to answer his own question started to demonstrate some squashes and compressions. The audience was amazed. It was as if they had never seen heavy work in action before.
Let’s solve the mystery
As an occupational therapist this surprised me. Whilst most of the attendees in the audience said they had heard of the term, many of them didn’t seem to know what it really was. The term is frequently mentioned in books and advice for children with sensory processing difficulties and/or autism. It is commonly recommended to help support their sensory issues. Yet, to those in the audience, what term actually meant seemed to be a mystery. In this post, I hope is to solve the mystery of heavy work.
Heavy work = Proprioception
When occupational therapists use the term heavy work they are usually referring to any activity that activates our proprioceptors. Our proprioceptors are parts of our joints and muscles that receive feedback when we move. They tell us the position our limbs are in. They let us know how much or how little force we are using. We discuss proprioception in much more depth in our post ‘What is Proprioception?’ If you haven’t read this post, or aren’t familiar with the term proprioception, we recommend you read it first before you continue.
A helpful sensory strategy
Heavy work is a commonly recommended sensory activity. It includes any activity that provides resistance. When you push something, like a shopping trolley. you create resistance. When you pull something, like a door open, you create resistance. If you carry something, like a backpack, there is resistance. Moving your body in any way activates the proprioceptors. However, when therapists refer to heavy work they typically mean moving with or against resistance.