By: Michelle Beck MS OTR/L

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have difficulty identifying, organizing, interpreting, and responding to information from the five main senses and the lesser-known vestibular and proprioceptive senses

Vestibular refers to the body moving through space and proprioception involves heavy work and use of the muscles/ joints. However, there is an even lesser-known sense: interoception. 

Interoception provides information our brains receive from our organs. Just as your skin detects and reports pain and pressure to the brain, your organs, bones, and muscles have similar receptors for communicating their status.

Here are some ways that interoception assists in maintaining a healthy body and mind:

  • Pain, cramping, and illness 

    • When you have a stomach ache, you are typically able to identify the pain and its location. If you have a fever, you will sense that you are hot and sweating. Your body is giving your brain information about an imbalance or illness and you can make decisions based on that information- taking the day off, lying down, taking medicine, etc. When your brain is not interpreting the information correctly or not identifying that information is coming in, the illness may progress and be harder to treat. 
  • Identifying personal emotions

    • Think about how your body feels when you are scared: heart racing, heavy breathing, sweaty palms. Some children that are seen as “risk-takers” or have poor safety awareness may not be detecting this information from the organs appropriately. If they don’t feel the physical symptoms of fear, they may not fully understand why they shouldn’t jump from the top of the monkey bars. 
    • Some children may have the opposite reaction; they pick up on the smallest changes and feel fearful of almost everything. The same process may happen for feelings of happiness, excitement, and anger. This can impact a child’s self-regulation. For example, is difficult to tell a child that has not fully experienced, identified, and understood what a calm body feels like, to “calm down.”
  • Hunger and Thirst 

    • Children with poor interoception may “forget” to eat or drink water until they are ravenous. Others may feel full after only eating a few bites of food or feel hungry all day long. These irregular states impact a child’s self-regulation, as they either quickly “run out of fuel” to get through the day or are distracted from typical childhood activities by their urge to eat. Proper nutrition is essential to brain and body development, digestive health, and toileting success. 
  • Toileting

    • Our bodies tell us when we “need to go.” Interoception helps us tell the difference between a bowel movement or the need to urinate. It assists in getting to the restroom in time to avoid accidents. Children that struggle with interoception may suffer from constipation and urinary tract infections, as they cannot feel the need to eliminate waste and will hold it in; sometimes to the point of accidents. If your child suffers from these issues, be sure to see a doctor to rule out any medical issues that may also cause or contribute to these conditions.

What Can Be Done?

Interoception and related sensory processing deficits should be assessed by a trained occupational therapist. Together with the whole family, the occupational therapist will develop a personalized plan to address any issues the child is facing. Sensory Processing Disorders are treatable. Please reach out to our staff with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your child.