In last week’s post, guest blogger and autism expert Kelly Mahler introduced the concept of interoception, the sense that helps us understand what’s going on inside our bodies. The first of her two-part blog series focused on defining interoception and offered examples of challenges that come up when a person lacks interoceptive skills. In this post, she looks at the ways interoception can be taught and improved.
By Kelly Mahler MS, OTR/L
Can interoception be improved?
Yes, neuroscience research indicates that the use of strategies derived from the field of mindfulness can not only improve awareness of body signals, but it can also positively impact specific areas of the brain. That said, mindfulness, or paying attention to your body in a specific way, can be incredibly abstract for some people, including people with autism. To overcome this barrier, multiple mindfulness strategies have been adapted in order to make them more concrete, visual, and interactive, and are showing positive outcomes in everyday life and in research. These strategies, called Interoceptive Awareness Builders, or IA Builders for short, are part of a brand-new resource, The Interoception Curriculum, which provides a step-by-step process for building the body-emotion-action connections needed for independent self-regulation.
Supporting interoception at home, school, and in the community:
Although a systematic approach using IA Builders is recommended for maximizing interoception, there are plenty of informal, free strategies that can be very helpful as well. For example, try the following strategies (please use only when an individual is calm and available for learning):
1) Use Interoception Talk: Label the way your various body parts feel during daily activities (e.g., “My hand feels warm when you hold it; My cheek feels tight when you make me smile; My breathing feels fast when I run with you.”).
2) Encourage Interoception Attention: Coach the individual to notice how various body parts feel during daily activities (e.g., “How do your hands feel when you are holding a glass of ice water? How do your eyes feel at bedtime? Look at the goosebumps on your skin; Put your hand on your chest and feel your heart beating fast.”). Please note: when using questions to build interoception attention, the individual may answer verbally or use any form of alternative communication (include descriptor words in a communication device or system).
3) Body Parts Poster: Collaboratively create a poster that has a picture of each body part and a list of words that can be used to describe the way that specific body part can feel (e.g., Hands: tight, loose, hot, cold, warm, fidgety, still, etc.). Display this poster where the individual can easily refer to it during activity #2.
Interoception is a little known, but very important sense. It allows us to notice and understand signals coming from within our body and is at the base of the body-emotion connection. Mindfulness, which can teach us to better listen to our body, is an evidenced-based method for developing good levels of interoceptive awareness. Research indicates that good awareness of our interoception body signals is important for many aspects of life including emotional self-awareness, emotional control, and emotional well-being. Therefore, in addition to multiple other benefits of mindfulness practice, or living mindfully, building awareness of interoception body signals is near the top of the list.
For more information and free resources, please visit www.kelly-mahler.com.
Kelly Mahler MS, OTR/L, has been an occupational therapist for 17 years, serving school-aged children and adults. Kelly is an adjunct faculty member and research chair in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA. She is an international speaker and presents frequently on topics related to the 7 books she has authored including The Interoception Curriculum: A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Mindful Self-Regulation.