What is Interoception: Develop Interoceptive Awareness In Kids

Cold child looking at the thermometer
Table of Contents

Interoception, or interoceptive sense, is an internal sense that interprets information from our internal organs. Interoception is also called the eighth sensory system or the hidden sense. Interoception is not a commonly known sense but is so important for us to have a well-integrated interoception sense.

Interoception allows us to understand if we are full or hungry, hot or cold, sleep, mood, energy level, and emotional regulation.

The Function of the Interoceptive System

Cold child looking at the thermometer

Interoception allows us to understand our body’s internal signals. Interoception allows you to know if you are feeling hungry, full, thirsty, hot, cold, or need the bathroom. Interoception also allows you to understand our emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and frustration.

Individuals who have difficulty with interoception might find it difficult to recognize physical sensations telling them how they are feeling internally, including their emotions. Reduced interoception can lead to difficulty with self-regulation. For example, if you are thirsty but cannot recognize the internal signs such as a dry mouth, this can lead to an imbalance in your body.

How does Sensory Processing Disorder Impact Interoception?

If you have a child who has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), they may have trouble recognizing physical signals from their interoceptive system. This leads to difficulties in a range of daily tasks.

Interoception and Toilet Training

A common area is the inability to recognize when they need to go to the toilet. Therefore, toilet training for children with sensory processing disorders can take longer. Children with poor interoceptive awareness may not be able to feel internal sensations like bloatedness or hardness in their tummies or their need to go to the toilet.

Interoception and Eating

Offended and fussy little child boy during eating outdoor

Children with poor interoception have difficulty identifying if they are full or hungry.

Interoception and Sleep

Close-up of a tired kid sleeping with his head rested on a table

Sufficient sleep is vital in a child’s development. Poor interoceptive awareness means the person has trouble telling whether they are tired or not.

Interoception and Emotional Regulation

Angry kid

When we are learning about emotion regulation, we need to be able to recognize internal bodily signals (like increased heart rate, body temperature, and breathing) to help us recognize how we are feeling and to label that emotion.

However, children who have poor interoception may have difficulty recognizing these interoceptive signals. The lack of this bodily awareness makes it hard to develop emotional awareness.

In addition to recognizing their emotions, it can be more challenging to develop effective calming strategies. Children who have poor interoceptive awareness may not be able to recognize changes in their physical signs like breathing.

Interoception and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Boy with autism

There have been some research articles in the past 10 years that have investigated interoception in individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Initially, there were hypotheses indicating that individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder may have under-sensitivity to their internal senses and therefore may have poor interoception (Elwin et al., 2012Fiene and Brownlow, 2015).

In 2016, a study by Shah et.al concluded that alexithymia (i.e.difficulties in recognizing emotions) was associated with atypical interoception, rather than autism (Shah, Hall, Catmur & Bird, 2016). In saying that, alexithymia is more common in individuals diagnosed with ASD compared to the general population (50% compared to 10% respectively  (Salminen, Saarijärvi, Äärelä, Toikka, & Kauhanen, 1999;  Hill, Berthoz & Frith, 2004).

How to help my child develop interoception skills?

Mother and child

To help your child develop interoception skills and a more integrated interoceptive system, it is important for them to have conscious awareness of their interoceptive signals. This requires them to pay attention to their own bodies, including their body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate and different physiological states.

Here is a list of strategies to try to help your child develop interoception skills.

  • Labelling different parts of their bodies
  • Increase the use of descriptive words in their life (e.g. hot, cold, shaky, smooth, bumpy etc.)
  • Identify physical signs in a person when they are feeling different emotions (e.g. an angry person may have red cheeks and clenched fists).
  • Get them to identify what parts of their bodies they can feel
  • Exploring temperatures. Get the child to choose their eyes. Place ice or hot water bottle on their arm to see if they can identify the difference between the temperatures.
  • Do different exercise activities (calming and alerting activities). Afterwards, see if the child can identify how fast their heart rate is going (i.e. faster or slower than before)
  • Participate in mindfulness activities to bring awareness to the body
  • Body check-ins – Throughout the day, do regular body check-ins to get the child to recognise a few body sensations that they are feeling. This may be a difficult task for them initially but as they practice this more often, they will draw awareness to recognise different body sensations.

However, if you still have ongoing concerns, talk to your local doctor or Occupational Therapist.

Sad girl with school problems

Summary

Interoception, also known as the hidden sense, is the ability to process information from our internal organs. This sensory input is important for the development of self-care tasks as well as emotion regulation.

Children who have poor interoceptive processing can find it hard to recognize their internal body signals, and therefore unable to use strategies to re-balance their internal state.

Instead of always relying on adults to remind them to go to the toilet, have a snack, or identify emotional feelings, it is important for the child to develop independence in these skills. For them to do this, they need to develop their interoceptive system by bringing awareness to their internal signals.

Improved interoceptive systems in one area can help children develop self-awareness in their body signals so they can become more aware of recognizing other internal signs.

References

Elwin, M, Ek, L, Schroder, A. (2012) Autobiographical accounts of sensing in Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing 26: 420–429.

Fiene, L, Brownlow, C (2015) Investigating interoception and body awareness in adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research 8(6):709–716.

Hatfield, T., Brown, R., Giummarra, M., & Lenggenhager, B. (2017). Autism spectrum disorder and interoception: Abnormalities in global integration?. Autism23(1), 212-222. doi: 10.1177/1362361317738392

Hill, E., Berthoz, S. & Frith, U. (2004) Brief report: cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and in their relatives. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34 (2), pp. 229-235, 10.1023/B: JADD.0000022613.41399.14

Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

O’Brien, J., Kuhaneck, H., & Ball, B. (2020). Case-Smith’s Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents. St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier.

Shah, P., Hall, R., Catmur, C., & Bird, G. (2016). Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception. Cortex81, 215-220. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2016.03.021

Schaefer, M., Egloff, B., Gerlach, A.L. & Witthöft, M. (2014). Improving heartbeat perception in patients with medically unexplained symptoms reduces symptom distress. Biological Psychology, 101 (1), pp. 69-76, 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.05.012

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