What is the interoceptive system? 

By Ani Oganesyan OTR/L

Have you heard about the interoceptive sensory system? It’s the 8th sensory system that is most often overlooked and is considered the “hidden sense”. Just like taste, touch, smell, seeing, hearing, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses, we use interoception to understand and make sense of our world. 

What is interoception? 

It is the sensory system responsible for letting us know what is going on inside of our body and how we feel about it. The receptors of the interoceptive system are located in our internal organs, skin, muscles, and bones. They help us understand what is going on inside of our body by sending information to our brain to help determine how we feel. 

This includes:

  • Hunger 
  • Thirst
  • Pain
  • Bathroom needs 
  • Temperature
  • Tiredness
  • Nervousness
  • Fear 
  • Emotional awareness
  • Feelings
  • Itchy
  • Ticklish

 

Why is this important?

Picture how difficult it may be for you to go on with your day when you do not understand what is going on inside your body. For example, not being able to tell if you are hungry or full, or you have trouble distinguishing between pain or an itch. 

 

Individuals with sensory processing disorder and many Autistic children and adolescence may experience difficulty with interoception. Since this system is also responsible for emotions, kids that have difficulty with interoceptive processing may have trouble feeling and understanding their emotions. For example, a kiddo might not understand why their heart is beating so quickly, why their muscles are tensing up or why they are getting sweaty. To develop self-awareness, children should be able to understand and label these inner sensations. For some children, it may be more challenging as they are unable to understand their physical signs and emotional states.

 

A child may be hyperresponsive (overresponsive) or hyporesponsive (underresponsive) to interoceptive input. Below are some examples of being hyper or hypo responsive. 

 

Hyperresponsiveness:

  • Always thirsty/hungry
  • Using bathroom more often than needed
  • Overly sensitive to sensations of stomach digestion 
  • Overly sensitive to cold/heat
  • Overwhelmed by feelings
  • High pain tolerance
  • Fear of vomiting

 

Hyporesponsiveness:

  • Difficulty knowing when they are hungry or thirsty
  • Low pain tolerance
  • Difficulty with toilet training
  • Difficulty distinguishing external temperatures (hot/cold)
  • Difficulty falling asleep 

 

Occupational Therapy and the Interoceptive System

 

When a child has challenges with the interoceptive system, they will not be able to appropriately respond to stimuli that they receive from their environment. Occupational therapists can help with sensory processing difficulties, including the interoceptive system. 

 

Each child is unique and has different needs. The occupational therapist (OT) with assess the child and may recommend certain interventions to help children become more aware of the sensations in their body in order to achieve a state of homeostasis. OTs work to build body awareness, self-awareness, and emotional regulation.

 

Strategies therapist might suggest include:

  • Heavy work and proprioceptive activities
  • Sensory diet
  • Vestibular activities
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Social stories
  • Timers or visual schedule for meals, drinks, and bathroom
  • Identifying body parts and feelings
  • Linking body sensations to words and feelings

 

If your child may be struggling with their interoceptive system and would benefit from Occupational Therapy services, please contact us today.

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