Supporting Toddlers With Sensory Processing Disorder: What About Interoception?
You might already have a good handle on your toddler’s sensory processing capacities as they relate to the commonly-known five senses of touch, taste, sound, seeing, and smell. You’ve adjusted their environment, talked to their teachers, and found them professional supports. Well done! But did you know that there are actually seven senses (not five!)? And one of them even sensory-saavy parents generally aren’t familiar with. It’s called interoception or proprioception. If you’re still trying to identify if your toddler might be showing signs of sensory processing issues, start here.
What Is Interoception And What Does It Have To Do With Sensory Processing?
Interoception is the sense that allows us to know what is happening inside our bodies. It’s the sense that tell us:
- Where we’re feeling pain
- When we’re hungry
- When we need to urinate or have a bowel movement
- When we’re hot or cold
- When we’re tired and need to rest
- When we need to move our bodies in lieu of hitting, kicking, or destroying objects
- When we need quiet or lower-stimulation environments instead of fleeing, hiding, or melting-down
While young children are developing interoception or proprioception, it can be hard to know whether or not your toddler is experiencing interoception difficulties. Over time, as peers are more independent and self-regulating around their bodily needs, you might get more clarity around your toddler’s interoceptive capacities. In the meantime, awareness and observation of these areas are important for early intervention.
Helping Your Toddler With Sensory Processing Disorder Develop Interoception
While you’re observing your toddler’s capacity to tell you that they need to have a bowel movement or urinate, eat, or move their bodies or having quiet time, there are things you can do to help them develop their interoception.
Use modified sportscasting
You’ve likely heard of “sportcasting” as a strategy to help your kiddo develop emotional intelligence. For example, your little one falls down and starts crying. You say, “You fell down and hurt your body. Now you’re crying because that scared you.” This helps your child connect the event to the emotion that triggered the crying. It allows them to make connections in the brain between those three events: 1) the fall, 2) the surprise/fear of falling, and 3) the emotional response to being surprised and then physically hurt.
Similarly, you can use modified sportscasting to help your child develop interoception. In other words, you’re going to call their attention to the physical sensation. In that same situation we went over above you could say something like, “You fell on your elbow/knee. You felt a big bump on your elbow/knee [point to the elbow/knee]. Your elbow/knee feels pain so you’re crying.”
This can take some practice both for neurotypical and neurodivergent parents. Give yourself time and before you start with your kid, start with yourself. For example, “I’m blinking a lot. My eyes are feeling dry. It’s time to take a break from the computer screen.” Or, “I’m raising my voice in this conversation. I need to take a few deep breaths.” Practicing modified sportscasting first on yourself can be humbling, helpful for your own ability to take care of your needs, and also develop compassion for what your toddler is trying to learn. It’s really not easy, especially in a culture which teaches us from a very young age to ignore, push through, and deny our interoceptive sense and the needs they’re pointing to.
Help Your Child Connect Behaviors To Self-Regulatory Tools
Using your modified sportscasting, you can help your child identify certain patterns of behavior that occur when they have an interoceptive need. A classic example is the body’s signal to urinate. Many young children, even those with sensory processing issues, will touch or grab their genitals when they need to urinate. If this is indeed something your child does consistently (this takes observation!), you could say, “I see you’re grabbing your penis/vulva/genitals, time for a pee break!” With repetition and a calm demeanor by the caregiver, kids with sensory processing challenges around interoception can learn to connect this physical cue with the need to urinate.
Another example for a child who needs to discharge energy might be, “I see you’re [kicking the chair legs]. Looks like you have lots of energy. Do you want to [jump/go in your sensory swing/have a dance party with me]?”
The key to the success of this strategy is:
- Think about the 1-2 interoceptive needs that your child is best able to identify themselves or has the most obvious and consistent “cue” and start there. This strategy is most useful when your child can feel a sense of autonomy and success!
- Identifying consistent physical behaviors, words, or other patterns that proceed your child’s interoceptive need.
- If your child isn’t perceiving the physical behavior, words, or other pattern you’ve chosen, choose another one! You’ve got to be willing to experiment. Try to be patient and take it all as data.
- Making sure the self-regulatory option is readily available to them in most situations (daycare, home, school, grandparent’s house, your home).
Make sure your child has easily accessible self-regulatory outlets
You’re supporting the development of your little one’s ability to identify their interoceptive sense with modified sportcasting. Now what? Let's make sure the suggestion you make for fulfilling that need for rest, quiet, discharging energy, or eating is readily available to them! These self-regulatory strategies will really vary based on your specific home environment, the other places your child spends time, and their developmental stage.
In an urban environment, offering the self-regulatory strategy of going to play outside isn't something your child can do themselves. So you might consider having a mini-trampoline, sensory swing, or “jumping jacks” at the ready. For those of you who are focusing on developing your child’s interoception of hunger, you might place a high protein/fat/fiber snack in a container on the counter or in a special tupperware in the fridge. For kids who aren’t ready for that level of responsibility, the self-regulatory strategy you’d offer them is, “Do you want me to get you a snack?” Eventually, they may learn to ask themselves.
Using Chinese Medicine For Sensory Processing Disorder In Toddlers
There are many different root causes for sensory processing disorders in toddlers according to Chinese Medicine. Each of these root causes is treated differently, giving your toddler or young child the opportunity to be better regulated, calmer, get better sleep, develop stronger social relationships and even muscle tone. Chinese medicine can even help toddlers with sensory sensitivities to eat a wider variety of foods.
Many parents with sensory processing disorders think that their kids wouldn’t be a good fit for the tools used by Chinese medicine practitioners. And I understand why! But with a practitioner experienced in supporting parents and kids with neurodiversity, and someone who uses tools that are sensory-inclusive, it is possible (without a fight!).
Here at Spectrum Chinese Medicine, we utilize tools that are sensory-inclusive including herbs that you kiddo will actually take, patches that can adhere to skin or clothing to stimulate acupuncture points and more. If your child struggles with anxiety, depression, overwhelm, collapse, or digestive, sleep, or skin problems alongside their sensory processing challenges, know that they’re all connected! To support your little one holistically, request a free 20 minute consult here.