The Other Senses: Interoception

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on Interoception, which is the sense of internal processes occurring in the body, such as hunger, thirst, fullness, nausea, heart rate, breathing, body temperature, arousal, and the need to use the bathroom.

Interoception is also connected to awareness of our own emotions because our bodies react physiologically to various emotions. Certain emotions make our heart rate increase (fear, excitement, sexual arousal), our stomach flutter (nervousness or anxiety), our muscles tighten (anger, stress, the need to mobilize) or relax (comfort, calm, relief). When we lack the capacity to interpret sensory feedback, we become confused about which physical sensation or emotion we are experiencing.

How does interoception work?

All throughout our bodies, in our organs, muscles, skin, bones, and elsewhere, there are small receptors that gather information to report information about the inside of our body to our brains. When our interoception is working properly, our brain helps organizes this information so that we can react appropriately to what we are feeling physically or emotionally.

How does interoception affect your child’s behavior?

Interoception is such a basic sense that it is most often taken for granted, but for children with Interoceptive Discrimination Disorder, a form of sensory processing disorder (SPD), it is very difficult to distinguish internal feelings from external ones. These children may believe that something originating in their own bodies is caused by something in the environment. This can result in difficulties in self-regulation and in inappropriate behavior. If your child doesn’t know that she’s hungry, for example, she may simply feel irritable or frustrated. For obvious reasons, children with interoceptive difficulties often have difficulty getting toilet-trained.

Interoception Has a Major Influence on Self-Regulation

Our interoceptive system lets us know when our internal balance is off so that we can restore its balance by, for example, drinking when we’re thirsty, or putting on a sweater when we’re cold. When our internal signals get crossed, we don’t know which actions to take to make ourselves more comfortable so we may keep eating when we’re actually full, or refuse to sleep when we’re actually tired. For those with interoceptive disorders, not only is self-awareness negatively affected, but the ability to understand the feelings and behavior of others may be disrupted.

Types of Interoceptive Disorders

To make the situation even more challenging, different individuals may respond to mixed interoceptive signals in several ways:

Defensiveness
Some children are hypersensitive to interoceptive input and may do whatever they can to subdue these sensations. They may, for example, avoid strenuous exercise because they experience the resulting increased heart rate as painful or frightening.

Under-responsiveness

Conversely, some children are under-responsive to interoception and therefore neglect to eat when they are hungry or go to the bathroom when they feel the urge to urinate or defecate. They may also be unable to sense the urgency of the present need.
Seeking Interoceptive Input

Sometimes children seek an abnormal level of interoceptive input. They may enjoy the feeling of a racing heart brought on by bursts of activity or enjoy the sensation of hunger or of needing to eliminate. This can lead to inappropriate responses to natural sensations and may be irritating and disturbing to their parents.

Ways to Address Interoceptive Disorders

The first thing to do if you suspect your child is dealing with an interoceptive disorder is to consult with a professional psychologist/behavioral therapist. A group of activities known as “a sensory diet” can be very helpful. If integrated in your child’s play on a daily basis, these activities can assist with your child’s attention, arousal and adaptive responses.

The Other Senses: Proprioception

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on proprioception, which is a fundamental means of sensing the environment. Proprioception lets us know our body’s position in space.

How does proprioception work?

The receptors for proprioception are located in our skin, muscles, and joints and connect to the brain through the nervous system, providing us with information about where our body is in space, even when our eyes are closed or if we are blind. It is believed that newborns already have a sense of proprioception.

Among other things, proprioception lets us know how we fit in with our external environment, whether we are carrying weight, and whether we need to contract our muscles. It is common for people to experience temporary malfunctions of proprioceptive processing during growth spurts, when they are fatigued, during aging, or when they are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. In children, problems with proprioception are often associated with social or behavioral issues, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and other disorders on the autism spectrum, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, and may also be associated with academic difficulties.

Manifestations of Proprioceptive Difficulties

Children with proprioceptive malfunctions have a hard time understanding their own body boundaries and therefore have problems understanding acceptable limits when interacting with others. The following are possible signs of proprioceptive disorder:

  • Bumping or crashing into things or other people
  • Kicking while sitting or foot stomping when walking
  • Desiring to be wrapped or hugged very tightly, or to be dressed in tight clothing
  • Using too much force to write or erase
  • Playing too roughly with other children or pets
  • Using too much force in carrying or opening, resulting in dropping, spillage or breakage
  • Having difficulty locating body parts, especially with closed eyes
  • Needing to bite or chew very frequently
  • Difficulty climbing stairs, riding a bicycle, standing on one foot (says a foot surgeon)

It is easy to see why children who have proprioceptive difficulties are easily frustrated and may lack self-confidence. They may be teased or belittled for the behaviors they use to compensate, such as toe walking, crashing, running or flapping. One study found that proprioceptive difficulties among children may contribute to decreased motor planning and postural control. This often leads to disruptive behaviors, making completion of everyday tasks and getting along with peers much more challenging.

Ways of Improving Proprioception

If you suspect your child has problems with proprioception, the best thing to do is consult with a professional. Behavioral psychologists and occupational therapists have developed a number of activities that can help such children improve their proprioception. These activities can go a long way in assisting your child in academic and social functioning, thereby helping her develop increased self-esteem.

Some of the activities recommended to improve proprioception in children are:

  • Having them do heavy work
  • Applying deep (not painful) pressure to their bodies
  • Having them move around, whether with chores or play, as much as possible
  • Playing games with them that require locating body parts (e.g. Simon Says, Hokey Pokey)
  • Performing activities that involve imitating body postures (swimming, dancing, tennis)

Be creative about finding ways in which you can help your child be proactive in overcoming his deficiencies while having fun (and sometimes completing a satisfying job in the process). Carrying groceries or laundry, pushing a vacuum cleaner, raking the yard, climbing a tree or jungle gym, shoveling soil or snow, crawling through a playground tunnel — all count as “heavy work.” Wrapping your child playfully in a blanket and applying deep, pleasant pressure, or giving your child a massage, may also be very helpful in building body awareness. It is important to have your child accurately diagnosed by a professional before beginning a program of targeted exercise since you want to make sure that what you’re doing is constructive and not overwhelming.

The Other Senses: Vestibular System

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on the vestibular system, which is a fundamental means of sensing the environment.

What is the vestibular system?

The vestibular system, which starts in vestibular organs in the middle and inner ear, is the first sensation a fetus experiences prior to birth. As we move our heads, the fluid in these organs shifts, giving us feedback about where we are in space. Depending on the efficiency of our vestibular system, we may experience a feeling of balance and gravitational security or a sense of being off balance and in danger of falling. The vestibular system makes our body aware of when we need to make adjustments to maintain balance.

Signs of a Healthy Vestibular System

When our vestibular sense is fully functional, we are secure and organized enough in our bodies to be able to attend and respond to all of the other senses we encounter daily.  A child with a well-developed vestibular sense feels confident and safe during movement activities, even if his feet are off the ground.  She is able to start and stop movement activities calmly and with control.  He is comfortable with climbing, swinging, somersaulting, and jumping –- knowing that his body will adapt and that he will be able to maintain his balance and keep himself from falling or getting hurt.

Signs of Vestibular Disorder

Surprisingly, when a child’s vestibular system is not functioning properly, she may be either under- responsive or overly sensitive to movement. For this reason, many of the symptoms of a vestibular problem may seem contradictory. These symptoms include:

  • Unwillingness to participate in activities that require feet leaving the ground
  • Frequent motion sickness or dizziness
  • Clumsiness or frequent falling
  • Moving with extreme caution
  • Excessive spinning with no reported dizziness
  • Impulsive, risk-taking behavior
  • Preferring sedentary activities
  • Rocking, twirling or frequent head tilting
  • Preferring slouching or lying down to sitting

While one child with a vestibular disorder may fear or dislike any activity in which his feet leave the ground — swinging, sliding, bicycle riding, jumping, or climbing — another child with the disorder may constantly seek these same activities. Also, vestibular dysfunction may cause problems with motor and visual coordination.

Positive Methods to Address Symptoms of Vestibular Disorder

If you suspect your child has vestibular issues, it is best to check with a professional before trying to help. Psychologists and occupational therapists often recommend some of the following activities to improve the situation:

  • Somersaults and cartwheels
  • Jumping rope or jumping on a trampoline
  • Bicycle riding
  • Swimming
  • Gymnastics
  • Lying on the stomach
  • Climbing on the jungle gym
  • Balancing on a curb or balance beam
  • Doing cartwheels or somersaults
  • Playing games like Twister

Directing your child to engage in such play may help her vestibular system to improve greatly. It is essential, however, to work under the guidance of someone with professional training so that you don’t urge your child to overdo activities that may cause physical or emotional discomfort or harm.

The Sense of Smell: Olfaction

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of smell, otherwise known as “Olfaction,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

Smell, much like taste, is a “chemical” sense. While we perceive smell to be a very simple process, there are so many chemical and physical things going on in your body to make it happen. There are over 300 olfactory receptors working in tandem with specific molecular features and receptors to make up what we perceive as the smell of an incoming molecule.

Olfactory receptors often die and regenerate on a relatively regular basis, which is different than other neuron receptors. The sensory receptors that pick up chemicals, called chemoreceptors, get “tired” after a certain amount of time, which is why many times you will be in a smelly room and will forget that the room smells after a while. Once your chemoreceptors are given a chance to recover, they will usually be back to normal.

For example, many studies suggest that over 80% of what we perceive as taste is actually due to how the food smells. As we touched on before, taste and smell go hand in hand when it comes to children becoming picky eaters. Finding out foods that smell good to your child is a good start, as what they smell will ultimately be what they taste when they eat. Making food that smells good is like giving your food to a culinary plastic surgeon: it will be infinitely more appealing if there is a good smell along with it.

A child with sensory processing disorder will have a hard time categorizing foods and other scents into their respective smells. This, just like taste, will often lead to your child being a picky eater, or will make them more likely to avoid situations in which they think they will be exposed to smells that are too much for them to handle.

Children with SPD, or similar diagnosis on the autism spectrum, often smell many objects or complain about things that they think smell bad. This is just like any other sensory overload that your child is experiencing, only they are able to explain to you how it is affecting them. While it is hard for us to perceive how a child is affected by not perceiving how objects are moving, we all know what it feels like to smell something that makes you uncomfortable.

Because we understand where our children are coming from when it comes to olfactory perception, it is important to know our child’s reactions. If they have similar facial patterns or verbal reactions to a certain object or food, it is a good idea to keep them at a distance until they are able to handle being around the object. It is important to remember that while the sense of smell might not seem as important as touch or vision, it can still be incredibly uncomfortable for your child if they are placed in the wrong situation. Always do your best to put them in a situation to succeed, whether that is introducing them to new smells to get them used to new sensations, or placing them in a neutral-smelling environment when you need them to perform a task.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are here for you!

The Sense Of Taste: Gustation

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of taste, otherwise known as “Gustation,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

Taste is the most basic sense refers to the detection of the chemicals that make up food. Taste is sometimes confused with flavor (flavor is actually your taste and your sense of smell working in conjunction with each other to form a perception). Taste is received through sensory organs such as the tongue, the papillae, taste buds, and the receptor cells.

When a food enters the mouth, during the digestion process, saliva is released and starts to break down the food moving the food into the tiny pores and grooves on the tongue where the receptor cells are located. The cells then determine whether the food fits into one of five tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami.

When your child suffers from sensory processing disorder they will have a hard time categorizing foods into their respective tastes. This might cause them to be extremely picky eaters. But there’s a difference between a picky eater and the potential to suffering from nutritional deficiencies due to limited food choices.  Also, there are some who have the opposite problem and crave oral sensory input.

Here are some indicators that your child might have taste sensitivity or enjoy oral sensory input:

  • considered a very picky eater – gag at certain foods, only eat certain brands, become anxious when trying new foods
  • will only eat food at room temperature
  • often finds food too hot or too cold or prefers food too hot or too cold
  • may enjoy extremely bland food or extremely spicy food
  • frequent drooling
  • licks, chews or bites inedible objects

According to Kay Toomey, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical director of SOS Feeding Solutions, current research shows from birth to 8 years, 20% of all kids struggle with food. But taste sensitivity occurs when your child lets eating disrupt their daily life.

There are however some strategies to help make meal time easier for everyone involved.

  • strict routines such as eating at the same time, location, and using the same utensils to help create comfort before meal time
  • parents and siblings should behave as role models
  • respond with praise when they have good behavior especially when they say “no thank you” to a bite
  • food should be served that is easy to manage – cut into cubes or small strips
  • have them help out during meal time such  as preparation, setting the table, and cleaning up
  • have kids play with the food to help get used to the textures
  • incorporate crunchy, chewy, or sticky snacks throughout the day for those who like to chew

An occupational therapist or a dietrician can help you present foods in news ways and make sure that your child is getting everything that they need.

The Sense of Touch: Somatosenory

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Somatosensory,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

The sense of touch is the activation of neural receptors generally in the skin. The sense of touch encompasses many different types of stimuli including but not limited to pain, pressure, tension, temperature, texture, shape, weight, contours and vibrations. Depending on the sensations depends on the type of neural receptor. For example, thermoreceptors respond to temperature, nociceptors respond to pain, and mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical stimuli such as tension, pressure, vibration.

A common misbelief is that skin is the only organ involved with the sense of touch, but in fact, the receptors are spread all throughout the body including muscles, joints, bones, nostrils, throat, tongue etc comprising the somatosensory system.

The sensations travel through the neural pathways to the spinal cord, the brain stem and the thalamus to what is called the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

When your child is suffering from sensory processing disorder and has issues processing touch based sensations, their brains are either receiving “too much” information or “not enough” information.

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving too much information:

  • avoiding touch including hugs from familiar adults
  • distressed during hair cutting or brushing and sometimes washed
  • using fingertips rather than using their whole hand
  • overreaction to being accidentally bumped or touched
  • doesn’t like to be barefoot
  • dislike clothing, hats, mittens, and shoes
  • doesn’t wash hands because it feels unpleasant
  • unable to tolerate food in the mouth
  • doesn’t tolerate toothbrush touching their teeth

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving not enough information:

  • touching people regardless of personal boundaries
  • playing with other people’s hair or clothing
  • pinch, bite or hurts themselves or others
  • doesn’t understand their own strength
  • high pain threshold
  • hit or bang head on purpose
  • throw themselves onto the ground

If you find that your child has some of these indicators, here are a few things that you can do to help them.

  • allow them to fiddle with something that is appropriate and not distracting to others
  • carry squeeze ball or fidget toys with you if they are touching something they are not supposed to be touching
  • have them wear textured clothing
  • sand play, water play, finger paints as sensory output activities
  • give advanced warning to activities that need to be done (like washing hair)
  • use blankets and stuffed animals to help them sleep at night
  • experiment with different foods (for example smooth or crunchy peanut butter)

A tactile disorder should be taken seriously as touch is very important in establishing fine motor skills because they use taste and touch to explore the world around them. Find an occupational therapy who can work with your child.

The Sense of Hearing: Audioception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Audioception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, hearing is about vibration. Sound itself is vibrations that travel through the air, our bodies ability to detect these vibrations is known as the sense of hearing. There are mechanoreceptors are located in the inner ear, pick up these vibrations and pass them through tiny bones called the ossicles and into the cochlea where it is then turned into electrical nerve pulse signals for the brain to interpret.

When someone has Sensory Processing Disorder, their ability to handle sound vibration can either be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive. Hypersensitivity is caused by a malfunction of the stapedius. The stapedius muscle contracts in responses to loud noises to protect our ear drum. When this fails to happen, noises appear much louder and the ability to filter our background noise is difficult. On the other side of the coin, hypo-sensitivity where the child cannot distinguish sounds or looks for louder sounds.

Here are some indicators that your child might be hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive to noise:

  • afraid of the vacuum, hair dryers, or toilet flushing
  • overreaction to loud sounds (covering ears, crying, running away or aggression)
  • annoyed or distracted by common sounds (fans, clocks, refrigerators)
  • keeps music, radio or television very loud
  • dislikes crowds
  • makes noise to just make noise
  • makes other people repeat themselves often because of not understanding
  • unable to determine the location of a sound

In some cases, your child might have what is referred to as Auditory Processing Disorder, where they have the ability to hear but struggle to process what they are hearing.

Well known example of this is demonstrated below:

Teacher: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are similar”
Student with APD: “Tell me how a cow and hair are similar”

The primary difference between this and hyper/hypo sensitivity is the problem lies with the understanding of the sounds rather than the volume of the sounds. The number of children with Auditory Process Disorder is estimated between 2-7%.

There are four types of auditory processing disorders:

  1. Auditory Discrimination – the inability to notice or compare between distinct and separate sounds (seventeen and seventy might be hard to distinguish)
  2. Auditory Figure-Ground Discrimination – inability to focus on important sounds in a noisy setting
  3. Auditory Memory – inability to recall what you’ve heard or what was said
  4. Auditory Sequencing – inability to understand and recall the order of sounds or words (for example, hear the number 357 but write down 735).

Here are some indicators that your child might have Auditory Processing Disorder:

  • has trouble following spoken directions
  • easily distracted by noises and background noises
  • has trouble with phonics involved with reading and spelling
  • struggle with oral math problems
  • can’t follow long conversations
  • can’t learn songs or nursery rhymes

When your child is suffering from either hyper/hypo sensitivity or Auditory Processing Disorder it can have a direct impact on their communication, their academic life, and their social skills. If you feel that your child might need help contact a speech and language pathologist or your school psychologist.

The Sense Of Sight: Ophthalmoception

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of sight, otherwise known as “Opthalmoception,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

In the broadest sense, sight or vision happens when the eye’s photoreceptors focus and detect visible light in the retina. This then generates an electrical nerve impulse creating various colors, hues, and brightness forming shapes.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the eye: rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to light and cones help distinguish colors. The neurons take the image and send it to your brain. The brain then interprets it and alerts you as to what the image is and how to respond.

When someone has sensory processing disorder, their ability to cognitively process information they take in through the eyes (visual perception) is affected. There are 8 different kinds of visual processing errors that can occur:

  • Visual Discrimination (confusing d and b, p and q)
  • Visual Figure-Ground Discrimination (pulling out a shape from its background)
  • Visual Sequencing Issues (difficulty establishing order of words, symbols, or image).
  • Visual Motor-Processing Issues (trouble coordinating movement of body parts)
  • Long or Short-Term Visual Memory Issues (recalling what they have seen)
  • Visual-Spatial Issues (difficulty telling location of objects)
  • Visual Closure Issues (being unable to recognize parts of the whole)
  • Letter and Symbol Reversal Issues (switching letters or numbers when writing – also know as dyslexia, which affects 1 in 5 kids)

Here are some indicators as to whether or not your child might be suffering from visual processing disorder:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Distracted by visual stimuli
  • Squints and rubs eyes
  • Trouble finding things even when it’s right in front of them
  • Headaches after visual stimulating activity
  • Trouble holding eye contact
  • Loving or hating being in the dark
  • Trouble distinguishing between shapes, letter or symbols
  • Trouble with handwriting including but not limited letter reversals, sizing, spacing or alignment of letters
  • Losing place when reading
  • Bumps into things
  • Slow or hesitant with stairs
  • Trouble distinguishing left from right

If you noticed that your child might have any of these warning signs, then there are few activities that you can do to help develop visual skills.

  • Develop visual tracking skills by using moving objects and stationary objects
  • Crawling and rolling on the floor
  • Spot the difference and hidden picture games
  • Emphasis maintaining eye contact when speaking
  • Hot & Cold Scavenger Hunts
  • Balloon volleyball
  • Bubble popping
  • Using a flashlight before going to the dentist (for more information go to our visiting the dentist page)

When your child is suffering from visual processing issues, it can affect their academic life, emotional life, as well as basic life skills. The best places to get help are a pediatric ophthalmologist, pediatric optometrist, behavior optometrist and in extreme cases a neuropsychologist.