At a glance
Interoception is a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body.
Kids who struggle with the interoceptive sense may have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold, or thirsty.
Having trouble with this sense can also make self-regulation a challenge.
Kids with sensory processing issues have trouble organizing information from the senses. This means they can be sensitive to and misinterpret information from the five traditional senses, or sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Some kids may also have challenges with the sixth and seventh senses — proprioception and vestibular.
But there’s an eighth and lesser-known sense, too. It’s called interoception. Here’s what you need to know.
What interoception is
Receptors in your muscles and joints tell you where your body parts are. That’s the basis for your proprioceptive sense, which makes you aware of where your body is in space. When you take a step, for example, you know your foot is off the ground without having to think about it. Kids with poor proprioception have trouble with this.
Interoception is a similar concept. Just as there are receptors in your muscles and joints, there are also receptors inside your organs, including your skin. These receptors send information about the inside of your body to your brain. This helps regulate our vital functions like body temperature, hunger, thirst, digestion, and heart rate.
Interoception helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. For instance, you know if your heart is beating fast or if you need to breathe more deeply. You’re able to tell if you need to use the bathroom. You know if you’re hungry, full, hot, cold, thirsty, nauseated, itchy, or ticklish.
For kids with sensory processing issues, the brain may have trouble making sense of that information. They may not be able to tell when they’re feeling pain or when their bladder is full. An itch may feel like pain or pain may feel ticklish.
Kids who struggle with the interoceptive sense can also have trouble “feeling” their emotions. They may not be as tuned in to the body cues that help interpret emotion. Without being able to feel and interpret those body sensations, it’s harder to clearly identify the emotion.
For instance, kids may not “feel” fear because they don’t recognize that their muscles are tense, their breathing is shallow, and their heart is racing.
Interoception and self-regulation
Having trouble with this sense can also make self-regulation a challenge. When you’re able to tell that you’re thirsty, you know to take a drink. When you can feel that your bladder is full, you know to use the bathroom. When you feel a sense of frustration, you know to explain what’s troubling you.
For some kids, this system doesn’t work well and they can’t regulate certain responses. Some kids may experience bedwetting. Or they may not know why they’re feeling off and can have meltdowns. Kids who struggle with these things may not be able to identify the real source of their discomfort.
Reacting to interoceptive input with sensory processing issues
Kids who are sensory seekers may crave interoceptive input. They may move quickly because breathing fast feels right to them. They may not eat or drink as much as other kids because being hungry and thirsty feels comfortable to them.
But kids with sensory processing issues can react in other ways, too. Some kids may:
- Find interoceptive input irritating. Kids who are hypersensitive to sensory input may overreact to interoceptive sensations. For instance, they may eat more than other kids to avoid feeling hunger pangs. They may also use the bathroom more often than necessary because they don’t like the way a full bladder feels.
- Respond inappropriately to interoceptive input. Kids who are under-responsive to sensory input may not feel or respond to sensations when they should. They may take longer than other kids to learn to use the toilet or have more frequent accidents. They may not eat as often as others because they may not feel hunger or thirst.
How to help your child
Heavy work and a sensory diet may be helpful as well. But helping your child really begins with knowing about treatment options and what to do if you’re concerned your child may have sensory processing issues.
Kids with sensory processing issues may crave interoceptive input, or they may find it irritating.
Experts are still learning about how to help kids who struggle with interoceptive input.
Mindfulness activities, heavy work and a sensory diet could be helpful options for kids who struggle with interoception.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Keri Wilmot is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.