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Interoception – The Least Known Sensory System

Interoception is the least known sensory system that the most people should be talking about.

April is Autism Awareness Month. While many things are still unknown about Autism Spectrum Disorder, researchers, therapists, and the loved ones of those affected are working each day to unravel the mysteries surrounding it. Emily Mason, an occupational therapist at Keystone Pediatric Therapies, works with children and adolescents who live with autism and other medical conditions, and helps them develop the skills they need to be successful and to lead a better quality of life.

One challenge that comes with autism and some other disorders is the ability to process sensory information. In today’s article, Emily shares some information about interoception – the least known sensory system.

What is interoception?

To put it simply, interoception is the sense that allows people to feel internal sensations within their bodies. There are receptors located throughout the inside of our bodies such as in the stomach, heart, lungs, muscles, etc. These receptors pick up on signals within the body, which are then sent to the brain to be translated into body states such as hunger, thirst, being sick, tired, having to use the bathroom, etc.

For example, your body may feel your stomach growl and your brain start to feel foggy. That message is sent to your brain, and your brain interprets it as feeling hungry. You then are able to act on that signal, such as by going to get a snack or having a meal.

So, is the interoceptive system also connected to feeling emotions?

Yes! Our bodies pick up on internal cues and sensations that are also linked to emotional experiences. In most cases, each emotion feels differently within the body.

For example, your muscles may be tense, your heart may be racing, your face may feel hot and your voice may be yelling. Your body picks up on these internal cues and again, sends them to your brain to be interpreted – in this case, interpreted as feeling angry. At this point, you are able to utilize coping skills to return your body to a calm state.

What does interoception have to do with self-regulation?

Having good interoceptive awareness is critical for self-regulation. When a person feels discomfort, whether it be from hunger, anger, feeling cold, etc., they are urged to act in order to remediate that discomfort. This action may come in the form of utilizing coping skills, getting a snack/drink, going to the bathroom, etc. The urge to act and self-regulate is dependent upon being aware of the internal sensations, which is what we call Interoceptive Awareness (IA).

What happens if a person does not have good interoceptive awareness (IA)?

Individuals with poor IA have increased difficulty regulating their body states and emotions. If you do not notice the sensations that communicate you are becoming anxious, you are not going to implement any coping skills to help self-regulate. Therefore, that individual will become more and more anxious until they have a panic attack or breakdown. The individual may know what coping skills to use when anxious; however, if they cannot feel when they are anxious, they cannot use the coping skills and they become ineffective. This same concept can be applied to anger, sadness, etc.

Is there a connection between autism and poor IA?

While there is limited research on the link between autism and poor interoceptive awareness, evidence suggests that interoception may be a critical piece that is being overlooked during the treatment of individuals with autism. Poor IA is connected to many difficulties that these individuals face on a day-to-day basis such as difficulty with self-regulation, social skills, etc.

Can therapy help?

Occupational therapists can work with individuals with poor IA to increase awareness of internal body signals and give those signals meaning. If the individual has increased awareness of his or herself, it can lead to greater awareness of their environment and others. Overall, this can lead to improved quality of life and greater participation in daily activities.

 

This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.