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What is Interoception? Understanding Your Child's Inner Sense

January 26, 2023
By Lizzy Simon, OTD, OTR/L

Many of us learned growing up that there are only five senses. In reality, our senses are any sort of signal or feeling that the body receives and sends to the brain to create an active response. This can be pain, sight, hearing, balance, knowing where your body is in space, smell, and taste, to name a few. Most of these stated senses provide input from outside of our body, but we can sense the inside of our body too. For example, we sense our hunger, when our heartbeat fluctuates, and when we have to use the restroom. This internal sense is known as interoception, and because it is internal, it is easily dismissed-especially with our neurodivergent populations.

Interoception was discovered in the early 1900s and was first coined as the receptor for smooth muscle movements in the autonomic system. We now know that the interoceptive nerves and neurons directly communicate these movements and processes in our insular cortex- or insula. The insula is a limbic structure, also known as our emotional brain, which focuses solely on understanding our internal state. Since it is within our emotional brain, it also plays a huge role in understanding our emotions. For example, when we feel on edge, excited, anxious, relaxed, or angry, our interoceptive neurons are processing the senses in our insula, making our brains aware of our internal body feelings. When we are aware of the internal feelings of our body, we can learn to process these feelings, label them as emotions, and then learn tools to understand and regulate these emotions in a way that can support our holistic health.

Humans are relational beings. The primary way we learn, process our emotions, and grow is through social interaction. As adults, we have close friends, family, and sometimes even professional help to support this emotional regulation. If we have a maladaptive foundation of emotional regulation, it takes a LOT of practice and effort to rewire those neurons. Just as adults need to constantly learn about themselves and how to process emotions, we need to think about the support and foundation a child needs too. Children need trusted adults to build a foundation because they are in the process of learning about their bodies. Remember, all behavior is communication founded on one’s ability to process and respond to external and internal sensations/perceptions. This is especially true in the neurodivergent population with people who can’t communicate the way neurotypical people do. If we view a child as a behavior to manage, a child will never fully develop their interoceptive sense, directly impacting their understanding of themselves, their ability to regulate their emotions, and their ability to communicate their needs and advocate for themselves. Therefore, it is our responsibilty as adults who interact with children to help develop the interoceptive sense and validate feelings and emotions.

So how can we support a child’s interoceptive sense and development? The first thing is to be aware of our emotions and interoceptive sense. We are the foundation for a child’s success. We can model healthy and supportive emotional regulation for a child, helping them become aware of their internal body feelings through practical application and conversation when regulated. We can get close and co-regulate with a child and model these strategies when they are dysregulated, and we can validate every emotion they feel.

Secondly, listen to the autistic community. Many autistic individuals are coming forward and teaching neurotypical people how to best support and interact with them, and how to best support the future generations development. Lastly, if a child is still having a difficult time with these developing skills, you can seek out occupational therapy, speech therapy, and play therapy to more intensive supports.

It is a wonderful pleasure and adventure working with the children at Westview! I am thankful for the families and staff. If you have any further questions about current research or application on interoception, emotional regulation, and sensory health, please contact me at The Stewart Center