By Sarah Ormond, Psychologist
Our ability to feel what is going on in our body is an important skill; tuning into to our physical sensations can give us important clues towards our physical needs and emotional states. Paying attention to these internal signals allows us to understand our emotions and direct our behaviour accordingly. This is called interoception – the ability to perceive the sensations that are occurring on the inside of your body. Clinical research has found that interoception is an important element in the development of effective self-regulation for children with Neurodevelopmental and Autism Spectrum Conditions.
Interoception can be especially challenging for children…
Tummy rumbling? Perhaps, you’re hungry.
Heart pounding? Maybe we have been exercising, or perhaps we are feeling anxious.
Belly feeling tight? Maybe you need to go to the toilet (quick, hurry!).
Eyes aching? Maybe it’s too bright.
The research suggests that for individuals with autism spectrum conditions, there is a great deal of variability in their ability to perceive what is going on in their body (DuBois, Ameis, Lai, Casanova & Desarkar, 2016). Some children can sense a greater deal than others, for example, they may have a greater sense of smell, detect sounds others may not hear, and may respond to the felt (touch) experience, which can bring either discomfort and reactivity, or provide safety. Sensory sensitivity can, at times, be quite overwhelming, and may lead to difficulties sleeping, managing uncomfortable sensations, and identifying and regulating emotions. For other children with Autism, they can have a muted interoception, where their experience feels duller, and sensations are less noticeable for them. This can make it more challenging to experience their world, like knowing when they are hurt or sick, verse anxious, create difficulty in toilet training, and sense what other people are experiencing (Mul, Stagg, Herbelin & Aspell, 2018).
Before a child can regulate their BIG feelings, such as anxiety or anger, they need help to notice (interoception) and connect bodily sensations with emotions.
Whether your child is hypersensitive or hyposensitive to what is going on in their body, their ability to identify their interoceptive signals and learn new skills in how to understand how they think and feel may offer greater space for helpful behaviours and assist in the challenges to their sensory experience. Learning and making improvements to sensing what is going on internally (interoception) is a dedicated practice, that can take most people quite a while to master! The good news is, there are evidenced-based principals, resources, and tools available for parents, teachers, and clinicians to support children to improve their interoceptive and emotional awareness overtime.
It is a valuable skill for children to learn to tune in, check in, and see if they can experience what is going on in their body with space to choose new behaviour (an aspiration for all of us!). Once a child learns to recognise what a physical sensation is, they can start to understand their distress (sometimes, this is best once things have cooled down), and then develop new ways to respond to these stressors next time.
The development of interoception can be practiced using interoceptive activities with your child in conjunction with the work you are doing with your therapist. Interoceptive activities focus on creating physical change in our body, and paying attention to that change in our internal state, using our:
- Muscles and Movement
Interoceptive skills can be developed through tasks and questions that are simple, to those that may be more complex. A few examples of skill development are paying particular attention to one part of the body for a few seconds, which may include:
- Mindful breathing whilst listening to our heartbeat, or feeling our pulse
- Rubbing our hands together to create heat and friction
- Jumping up and down and observing our breathing and pulse rate increase
- Squeezing our toes and stretching our hands as high as we can
- Doing a wall squat
- Holding a plank
- Dance moves, like Flossing! (perhaps, this could be a new skill for the family… you’ll be the coolest parent out there J)
- And more!
It is important to ask your child a couple key questions, in order for them to build their mind and body connection and link what they are experiencing physically to their emotions. You can ask:
- Where did you feel that in your body?
- If they need a prompt – how did your legs feel? How did your arms feel? Can you feel your heartbeat?
Supporting the process for children to tune into their body, detect these sensory cues, and make sense of what is going on with them physically can assist with their ability to manage their emotions and challenging behaviours, overtime. Let’s learn together!
References & Resources:
DuBois, D., Ameis, S. H., Lai, M. C., Casanova, M. F., & Desarkar, P. (2016). Interoception in autism spectrum disorder: A review. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 52, 104-111.
Fiene, L., & Brownlow, C. (2015). Investigating interoception and body awareness in adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research. doi:10.1002/aur.1486
Garfinkel, S.N., Tiley, C., O’Keeffe, S., Harrison, N.A., Seth, A.K., & Critchley, H.D. (2016). Discrepancies between dimensions of interoception in autism: implications for emotion and anxiety. Biological psychology, 114, 117-126.
Mul, C. L., Stagg, S. D., Herbelin, B., & Aspell, J. E. (2018). The feeling of me feeling for you: Interoception, alexithymia and empathy in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(9), 2953-2967.
Understanding Interoception Resources & Activities for Teachers and Parents:
Goodall, E. (2016) Interoception 101 Activity Guide, Department for Education, South Australia
Lean, C., Leslie, M., Goodall, E., McCauley, M., and Heays, D. (2019) Interoception 201 Activity Guide, Department for Education, South Australia.