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Interoception & Self-Regulation

What is Interoception?


Interoception involves the brain's ability to process and interpret signals from within the body. It helps individuals recognize and respond to physical sensations, contributing to emotional awareness and self-regulation. For example, a child with typical interoceptive awareness can feel when they are hungry, identify the sensation, and respond by eating.


Perceiving bodily states provides crucial information to a person about their internal condition, such as recognizing feelings of tiredness, anxiety, or hunger. This awareness helps individuals understand their physical and emotional needs, prompting them to take appropriate actions. For example, recognizing the sensation of heavy eyes may signal the need for rest, sweaty hands might indicate anxiety that could be managed through deep breathing exercises, and a grumbling stomach suggests the need for food. By accurately perceiving these bodily cues, individuals can implement strategies to address their needs, enhancing their ability to self-regulate and maintain overall well-being.


Understanding Interoception in Autistic Children


For autistic children, interoception can be particularly challenging, impacting their daily lives and overall well-being. This can manifest in various ways:


  • Difficulty Identifying Internal States: They may struggle to recognize or describe their bodily sensations. They might not realize they are hungry, thirsty, or need to use the bathroom until the sensation becomes overwhelming.

  • Delayed or Atypical Responses: Even when they do recognize internal sensations, their responses may be delayed or atypical. For instance, a child may not seek food when hungry or might not react to pain in a typical manner.


  • Emotional Regulation: Interoception is closely linked to emotional regulation. Difficulty interpreting bodily signals can lead to challenges in managing emotions, contributing to anxiety, meltdowns, and/or burnout.


  • Sensitivity to Sensations: They may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to interoceptive signals. Hypersensitivity might result in heightened awareness of minor discomforts, while hyposensitivity can lead to underreacting to significant bodily needs.


Supporting Interoception in Autistic Children

Strategies for Parents and Therapists


  • Body Awareness Activities: Engage children in activities that promote body awareness, such as yoga, mindfulness exercises, and sensory integration therapy.


  • Visual Supports: Use visual aids like charts or social stories to help children identify and understand bodily sensations. For example, a chart with images depicting hunger, thirst, and bathroom needs can be helpful.


  • Consistent Routines: Establishing consistent routines for eating, drinking, toileting, and sleeping can help children develop better interoceptive awareness.


  • Communication Tools: Encourage children to communicate their bodily needs using words, gestures, or communication devices if they are non-speaking. Practice scenarios where they can express feelings like hunger, discomfort, or fatigue.


  • Professional Support: Work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other professionals who can provide tailored interventions to improve interoceptive awareness and related skills.


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