The 8th Sense
by DeNell Dykstra, OTS
Kids Place West Student Occupational Therapist

Most of us are aware of the five main senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Some of us have also heard of the two ‘hidden’ senses – proprioception and vestibular. Proprioception is the ability to sense joints and muscles.  The vestibular system controls our balance and head movement. Combined, these senses help us interpret and engage in our environment. For children, this helps them learn, play and grow. But there is an additional sense that may be new to you – interoception.

Interoception is the sense of knowing what is going on inside the body.  Examples of this are feelings of hunger, thirst, pain, heart rate, muscle tension, needing to use the bathroom, being tired, and many other internal sensations.  Interoception can also be tied to emotional regulation and mood.

If you do not understand what is going on inside your own body, you can imagine how difficult it can be to regulate your emotions and moods.  For example, when you get really hungry it may become hard to control your emotions.  If you need to use the bathroom and you have to wait in a long line, or you can’t find one close to you, your mood may change.  These are all examples of how what’s going on inside our own bodies can impact our mood.  Having good interoceptive awareness provides a foundation for self-awareness. The clear sense of self is necessary before a child can develop a clear sense of others.

Some kids may experience interoception difficulties and need help learning how to appropriately respond to what they are feeling inside their bodies.  Here are some strategies that can be used to help your child:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Understanding emotions – this can be done with matching games or taking time to explain what different emotions mean, especially in the moment of feeling them and how the child may feel physically and mentally with each emotion
  • Breathing exercises
  • Social stories
  • Heavy work
  • Alerting activities
  • Visual prompts

If you are concerned with your child’s performance in any of these areas, speak with an occupational therapist or your pediatrician and consider an occupational therapy evaluation.

References:

Mahler, K. J., & Craig, A. D. (2016). Interoception: The eighth sensory system: Practical solutions for improving self-regulation, self-awareness and social understanding of individuals with autism spectrum and related disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.