As a 27-year-old self-advocate with autism, I have the opportunity to travel to conferences and learn about breakthrough research. In 2015, Kelly Mahler, an occupational therapist (OT), and Brenda Myles shared something in a session I’d never heard of: interoception. I started thinking about my own life and connecting what they were saying to my everyday experiences. I finally had a name for something that impacted my life daily.
Interoception: what is it
Interoception is a lesser-known sense, sometimes referred to as the “eighth sense,” that helps us understand and feel what’s going on inside our bodies. Individuals who struggle with the interoceptive sense, like me, have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold or thirsty. Having trouble with this sense can make self-regulation a challenge.
I used to go inexplicably from “zero to one hundred” in terms of anxiety. I know so many calming self-regulation strategies (enough that I could be a walking, talking encyclopedia of strategies), yet I struggled to implement them in the moment. I realized that this is because I was missing a very important piece: interoception.
Benefits of incorporating interception into therapy
In order to successfully recognize how you are feeling, be aware of your body, and self-regulate your emotional responses, interoception is key. Mahler has written a curriculum and a book to help teach therapists how to work with their clients to improve interoception skills.
I personally have had the opportunity to work on my own interoception skills during OT over the last four years. I’m amazed at how much progress I have made. I’m now able to use words to describe what hurts. Before working on my interoception skills, I would scream and cry in frustration. My language to describe what hurt was very limited, and I could only say things like, “Throat hurts…look. Call doctor.”
This reminds me of the time in 2012, when I was 20, and my parents took me to an urgent care center because I was not feeling well. I was asked if my ears hurt; I said, “Ears hurt…yes…no…maybe!”
While communication can still be difficult, I can now convey enough information to give my family and doctors a clue as to what might be wrong.
I worked with an OT going through the interoception curriculum section by section, one body part at a time, completing different activities to help me learn descriptive words for each body part. Now I am working on connecting the different sensations, such as heavy eyes plus slow muscles equals tired.
Resources for interoception
I am very passionate about interoception and teaching others what it’s like from my perspective. Mahler and I wrote My Interoception Workbook: A Guide for Adolescents, Teens and Adults with another self-advocate with autism, Jarvis Alma. The book is expected to be released in January 2020.
I encourage parents of individuals with disabilities who may be experiencing similar struggles to learn more about interoception. It may be the key to helping your child begin to recognize his/her body signals better. Occupational Therapists at Wood County Rehab have experience with interoception skills.
To learn more about interoception, go to
kelly-mahler.com. To learn more about me,