Did you realize that you have 8 sensory systems?! When we think of sensory systems most people commonly think of our 5 main senses: visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell). Our 6th and 7th sensory systems are proprioception (body awareness) and vestibular (movement). Our 8th sensory system is our interoceptive system which is our sensory system that gives us information regarding the internal condition of our body.
What Exactly is Interoception?
The interoceptive system has specialized cells (receptors) that are responsible for collecting important sensory information. In the case of interoception, the receptors are located throughout most of the tissues in our body. The information gathered by these receptors is sent to a specific area of the brain called the insular cortex, or insula for short. The insula translates the incoming messages and enables us to identify our current body states. In other words, interoception allows us to answer the question, “How do I feel?”
Interoception allows us to experience feelings of tickle, hunger, fullness, social touch, need for bathroom, itch, muscle tension, pain, sexual arousal, nausea, physical exertion, breathing rate, heart rate, thirst and every single emotion.
Interoceptive Awareness (IA) is the ability to notice sensations and give meaning to the sensations. The insula is the interoception center of the brain. Research has found that people with well-functioning insula are more aware of the feelings within the body. These individuals are described as having good IA.
Good levels of IA are clearly linked to the development of many important skills areas including self-awareness, self-regulation, problem solving, intuition, flexibility of thought, social awareness, and perspective taking. On the other hand, individuals with reduced IA have difficulty with the same skills which, in turn, can have a significant impact on health, well-being, and successful participation in everyday activities.
Based on substantial research, we now know that the insula, or the interoceptive center of the brain, is significantly impacted in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and that there is brain-based evidence backing the interoceptive experiences reported by individuals with ASD.
Without good IA, good self-regulation cannot exist!
Therefore, IA needs to be a main focus when addressing self-regulation needs.
Kelly Mahler, MS, OTR/L is the author of the book, Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System. She has also developed the Comprehensive Assessment for Interoceptive Awareness.
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This assessment includes The Interoceptive Awareness Interview, Assessment of Self-Regulation and The Caregiver Questionnaire for Interoceptive Awareness.
In regards to the Assessment of Self-Regulation the percentage scores are not standardized or normed, but it gives you a calculated number to serve as baseline.
There is a huge need to have a standardized measure of interoception for kids. Kelly is currently working with a few physicians on a large interoception research project and she is hopeful that a side benefit of their work is to have a measure that can be used by others. At this point, that research project is a year or two away from completion.
If you know of anyone looking for a research project, Kelly is happy to share her assessment and interested researchers could at least get normed scores for different ages :) Kelly welcomes people interested in research opportunities to contact her at email@example.com.
What Can We Do To Help Develop Interoceptive Awareness?
1. Be Positive…And Focus on the Positive!
- Establish a concrete concept of positive feeling emotions – just start with 2 or 3 different emotions. For example, start with excited, happy and relaxed/calm.
- Then, connect those identified emotions to experiences that cause those positive feelings. For example, I become excited when I win the BINGO game in class. I am happy when my teacher writes a nice note on my test. I am relaxed/calm when I sit in my beanbag chair and read a book.
- Finally, work on connecting those emotions to a description of the sensation noticed when feeling that emotion. For example, my heart starts to race when I feel excited! My body feels warm when I am happy. My muscles feel loose when I am relaxed/calm.
2. Body Checks
- Body Check Charts make the abstractness of internal sensations more concrete by having a visual structure to represent those internal experiences.
- The Body Check Charts displayed below are examples of visually structured methods for building awareness of body signals.
- More information at www.mahlerautism.com
- Body Check Chart Directions
Alternate ideas that can make the process of using the Body Check Chart fun and personalized for a particular student:
- Make a full size Body Check Chart by tracing the person’s body and putting their name on it.
- Pointing to a body part on the chart and asking the person to wiggle the corresponding area.
- Pointing to the body parts in the chart while playing Simon Says.
- Making an observation about the person’s body part (fingers tapping, feet shaking, etc.) and labeling it on the chart.
- Experimenting with sensations of a body part and describing how it feels like touching different textures, tasting different foods, listening to different sounds, etc.
3. Body – Emotion – Cause
- This is a great resource developed by Kelly Mahler! It’s a visual guide intended to be used for in the moment processing connecting positive feeling body signals and emotions to the cause or context of the situation (see the example below):
We need to know what emotion we are feeling in order to control it!
An individual can be taught 100’s of coping strategies, but it is not until we have a clear indicator of when to use a strategy and which strategy is the best match for the emotion at hand that we will be effective emotion regulators across different situations and settings.
Self-regulation is our ability to control the way we feel and act. The interoceptive system drives our self-regulation behaviors. Good interoceptive awareness is absolutely crucial to effective self-regulation!