Our sensory system is how we experience the world around us, and when we have difficulty processing one or more of these senses, our daily experiences can be hugely impacted. Children also use their senses to take in the world around them and learn new skills, whether through watching a bubble float by with their eyes, feeling gooey slime squish between their fingers, or tasting that delicious piece of cake with their tongue. While some of the senses are better known, there are others that are “hidden,” but equally as important in your child’s development. Some children have difficulty processing sensory information and producing a response that is appropriate, which can be seen through a variety of challenges in completing important daily activities. Understanding what our senses do for functioning is the first step in improving our ability to process them!
What is interoception?
It is likely that you learned about the “five senses” sometime early in your life: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. These senses help you initially interact with the world around you and are important in helping you participate in everyday activities as an infant and young child. As you got older, you may have learned of the next two senses that are not as obvious but still very important to daily functioning: the proprioceptive and vestibular sense. Proprioception is the sense that identifies the position of your body in space with the use of receptors in your joints and muscles, and the vestibular sense helps us with movement, balance, and controlling our posture.
Interoception is the eighth sense we have; it is often called the “hidden sense” because it is not something we can see, but what we feel on the inside of our bodies. Imagine it is 2:00 in the afternoon and you have not eaten since 7:00 in the morning. Your stomach starts to make a growling noise. That is your interoceptive system working to let you know that you are hungry and that your body needs food to maintain a balanced state. When responding appropriately, you would recognize that sound and feeling to mean hunger, and you may go to the kitchen and get a snack.
Our interoceptive sense allows us to feel important body functions like hunger, pain, nausea, itch, needing to use the bathroom, coldness, and even emotional states such as nervousness, fear, or excitement. This sense uses internal signals that tell us how our body is feeling and can give clues to how we can respond to restore balance and find a place of comfort. Our bodies want to feel regulated, and how we get there may be different for everyone.
What does it look like when a child has difficulty with the interoceptive sense?
When the interoceptive sense is not processed appropriately, your child may have difficulty understanding what the signals inside of his/her body are trying to communicate and then will have difficulty responding appropriately to these messages.
Generally, this means challenges with:
- Bedwetting, constipation, and frequent accidents
- Identifying appropriate ways to dress for the weather/temperature
- Not being able to identify hunger, thirst, sickness, pain
- Self-regulation, self-awareness, and emotional outbursts
- Having flexible thoughts and behaviors
- Social skills and participation
Self-regulation, or the ability to monitor and manage your emotions and behaviors, is a vastly important aspect to consider with your child who may be struggling with interoception. For example, your child may not be able to feel or recognize getting angry; that is, a faster heartbeat, the face getting hot, or muscles tensing. Your child will then have difficulty identifying that these feelings mean anger, possibly not even until the emotion has already produced an inappropriate response. Without understanding and being aware of how these body sensations are making us feel, it will be difficult to identify the emotion being experienced and react in a way that is appropriate.
How can occupational therapists address interoception skills in children?
As daily occupations (i.e. using the bathroom, dressing for the weather, interacting with friends) are often affected by our understanding of our internal body sense, occupational therapists have a role in working with children who may have difficulty with the interoceptive sense. Occupational therapists (OTs) at PlayWorks follow guidelines from the Interoception Curriculum, a program designed by Kelly Mahler, a licensed occupational therapist and expert in interoception.
Using a step-by-step framework, OTs work to improve awareness of sensations within the body by introducing body experiments and body checks. These activities seek to improve your child’s understanding of how his/her body feels and can enable him/her to respond appropriately to improve participation in daily activities. Following this curriculum, OTs may also use a visual representation of the body to aid in recognizing and understanding body signs. This can be accomplished by using a visual drawing of a person with different body parts, combined with a list of different sensations or describing words. This will enable your child to practice matching the descriptor words to different body parts to increase understanding and connection of internal body cues and daily activities.
What can I do to support interoception in my child?
While interoception should be addressed in therapy, you can also support these challenges while at home. It will be helpful to start labeling body language as you notice it during different activities. For example, you can say, “I see that your breathing is getting heavy and your face has become a little red. I think you might be feeling angry.” This may help to link specific body language to emotions that they are feeling.
Additionally, you can try out some mindfulness activities, such as meditation, yoga, or reading a book centered around being mindful. While doing so, you can point out or ask how their body is feeling when they are doing these different activities to bring awareness to internal body cues. While this may be a challenging sense to understand for some children, there are many ways we can work with you and your child to increase his/her knowledge and recognition of these cues to improve participation in daily activities!
Questions or concerns?
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s interoceptive sense, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-332-9439.
Occupational Therapy Student Intern
Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System (2016). Retrieved from https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/b303b5_ab07aaedc04c45b3a96e519fc262ecd1.pdf
Mahler, K., McLaughlin, E., & Anson, D. (2020). Interoception Across Varying Degrees of Mental Wellness. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(4_Supplement_1), 7411505251p1-7411505251p1. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.74S1-PO9513
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