What is Interoception?
Interoception refers to our perception of what is going on inside our bodies. It therefore enables us to notice body signals like a growling stomach, racing heart, sweaty palms or a full bladder.
Interoception also helps us to connect our body signal to an emotion and act in response to this in order to restore optimal balance and comfort to our bodies. For example, if you notice that your stomach is growling, you understand that this is your body’s way of signalling you are hungry, and therefore you eat something.
Research shows that interoception has a far reaching influence on many different aspects of our lives.
Interoception and Emotions
One aspect of our lives which is heavily influenced by interoception is how we interpret emotions. Every emotion we feel has a corresponding sensation in the body. People with good interoceptive processing skills are able to respond quickly to the input to restore their state of balance. Children with ASD, SPD or ADHD may not recognise these sensations in a typical way, and they might be hyposensitive or hypersensitive to interoception.
Children with hypersensitivity to interoceptive input can experience typical everyday sensations like hunger or having to use the bathroom as distracting or painful. This may result in difficulty maintaining attention to tasks if the child is preoccupied with the internal stimuli. The child may have physical “overreactions” in response to the internal stimuli. These physical “overreactions” can be anxiety, meltdowns, and other negative behaviours for no reason. They are actually responding to the intensity of these internal sensations. Can you imagine how distracted you would be if you were fearful of the sound of your own heartbeat?
Some children may be less sensitive to interoceptive input. This is when they do not receive cues from internal sensations. The child may not be able to respond to the pain or feeling in a functional way. Children who seem to act out without warning, just can’t get the hang of potty training, or never seem hungry or thirsty, may be struggling with interoceptive processing. Without feeling their internal sensations clearly, it can be difficult to understand what our body is trying to signal and communicate. This can result in struggles with self-regulation, as we are unable to feel ourselves getting angry or upset until the emotion has already reached the point of eruption.
Differences in interoception
Common signs of interoception differences can include difficulty with one or more of the following;
Recognising when hungry, full or thirsty;
Toilet training (daytime and/or nighttime);
Identifying when sleepy;
Overly sensitive or not sensitive enough towards pain;
Pinpointing symptoms of illness;
Identifying emotions in self and in others;
Recognising building signs of distress (before a full meltdown);
Independently using coping strategies during times of distress.
Can Interoception be improved?
Absolutely! Research shows that interoception can be improved and there are many easy strategies that can be incorporated into your daily routine to support improvements in interoceptive awareness.
Use interoceptive language. Label the way your various body parts feel during daily activities (eg: my hand feels warm when you hold it, my eyes feel tired after reading, my heart is beating faster after playing with you).
Encourage your child's interoceptive attention. Encourage them to notice how their own body parts are feeling during the day (eg: How do your hands feel when you wash them in cold water? Look at the goosebumps on your skin, how does your mouth feel after a drink of water?).
Label and highlight body language that correlates with an emotion to assist them to understand what they are feeling (eg: pointing out to someone ‘I can see your hands are sweaty and your legs are moving, is your heart beating quickly? Does your stomach feel fluttery? I think you might be feeling nervous).
Body mapping: Using a visual representation can be very helpful in recognising body signs and understanding what they mean.
Participate in mindfulness activities (meditation, deep breathing, yoga, etc.).
Heavy work and tummy time activities.
Role-Playing Scenarios (ex. “I’m feeling anxious, what should I do?”).
Please talk to your Occupational Therapist if you require further support with your child for their Interoceptive Awareness.