Updated: Nov 22, 2022
As an occupational therapist working with children who have sensory processing challenges, I typically introduce parents and caregivers to the sensory systems: vestibular (sense of gravity), proprioceptive (body in space), tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), visual (sight), taste and smell. I also introduce what is considered the body’s 8th sense: Interoception.
What is Interoception?
Interoception is the feeling or sensation happening INSIDE our bodies such as thirst, pain, tiredness, temperature, hunger, bowel and bladder urges, quickening heart rate. The sensory receptors located in our body’s organs and skin are the receptors sending signals to the brain with information about what is going on inside our bodies. The information helps us regulate our body functions and guides our reactions to these signals.
For example, if we need to go to the bathroom when we are driving on the freeway, we will look for a place to pull off and use the bathroom. However, if no place is available, we will react and delay the urge until we arrive at home. Another example is seen in the Snickers ® TV commercial. The character who is “hangry” or angry because they are hungry. We might be emotional and become moody or easily annoyed when we are hungry. When we feel this way, we get a snack and then our mood improves. Some of us may experience being tickled as more painful than playful. As we process this sensory information, we can be more sensitive (hyper) or less (hypo) sensitive.
Some children and adults who are experiencing sensory processing difficulty may have trouble correctly interpreting the information sent to the brain from these sensory receptors. They may not be able to tell when their bladder is full and need to go to the bathroom.
Another example is a fly landing on our skin and then flying away. It may be experienced as a tickle vs very annoying vs a lingering sensation. Some children may not “feel” their muscles tensing, breathing becoming shallow and heart rate getting faster and faster. They may not recognize these feelings as a FEAR response. Some children may be very sensitive and distracted by the sensation of hunger or a full bladder. Children may react as if these are painful responses or become distracted. Instead of addressing the sensation by going to the bathroom or eating a snack, the child becomes fidgety, moves around, and stops paying attention to instructions.
Non-adaptive responses to interoceptive input negatively affect a child’s ability to participate and interact meaningfully in his/her routine and environment. Typically, poor behavior responses result when a child is unable to recognize or address their internal needs. Behavior may include, but is not limited to toileting accidents, emotional meltdowns, and poor sleeping or eating patterns.
Occupational therapists can work with children to identify their level of interoceptive awareness in a playful and safe way.