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Have you experienced this? You are at the park riding bikes or playing on the equipment and your child takes a nasty spill. You stand there waiting for them to start whaling in pain…but nothing. Nothing. No reaction. Your child pops back up and keeps going even as blood is dripping down their knee.
Having a lack of the sensation of pain, temperature, hunger, or thirst is common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD). Having this lack of internal sensation is a lesser-known-sense called “interoception”. Children with interoception challenges will also have difficulty with integration of the other senses, as well as self-regulation. Making sense of the world through sight, sound, touch, and movement can be difficult when your brain does not process the incoming information correctly.
For example, the sense of proprioception gives our body the ability to understand where it is in space. Every step we take sends sensory information into our joints helping our brain understand if we are stepping up or down or on what particular surface. The visual system will help guide us around objects and to our destination. If any of the 8 sensory systems are not fully organized the child will have challenges such as falling frequently, and bumping into people or objects ,amongst other symptoms.
Kids with interoception challenges will have trouble processing information coming to the brain from the receptors in their organs. These receptors send information about the inside of our body to our brain. This helps regulate our vital functions like body temperature, hunger, thirst, digestion and heart rate.
Interoception helps you feel what is going on inside your body. You’ll understand the sensation of your heart beating fast, or if you need to breathe deeply. You’ll know when you are hungry and when you need to take a drink. You’ll feel the sensation of having a full bladder and needing to void.
For kids with SPD and ASD these internal sensations are disorganized. A touch of the skin may feel like a stab, or it may feel ticklish. You’ll notice a child with sensory processing disorganization either interprets a sensation as being more than it should (hyper-sensitive) or less than it should (hypo-sensitive).
Kids who struggle with interoception will also struggle with emotions, empathy, compassion, and social skills. If the child cannot understand what is happening inside their bodies, they will definitely not be able to interpret the feelings of others. They will also not understand the non-verbal social inflections that typical children understand. It is important to note this because many children that show little-no empathy towards others can be labeled with a behavior problem. When they truly have a neuro-developmental delay or a “disorganized brain”.
So what can we do?
Professionals will tell you that things like sensory integration therapy, meditation, and mindfulness activities will help them learn how to feel their emotions. There is much more to the story than this. These treatments are a band-aid that may help a child memorize route pictures of “sad” or “happy” and be able to respond when asked if a child looks happy or sad, but it doesn’t fix the disorganized brain. A “sensory diet” is another temporary fix that may help a child self-regulate for the moment but it won’t be a permanent change. Neurodevelopment treatment with reflex integration is the only treatment that will go back and engage the motor system along with the sensory systems in order to balance the brain and develop the areas of the brain that are underdeveloped; in this scenario the Pons.
The pons contains nuclei that relay signals from the forebrain to the cerebellum, along with nuclei that deal primarily with sleep, respiration, swallowing, bladder control, hearing, equilibrium, taste, eye movement, facial expressions, facial sensation, and posture. Obviously a very important part of the brain that is typically fully developed by 7-12 months.
For whatever reason your child did not fully develop their Pons, there is hope! Treatment will go back and re-establish the movement patterns in infancy to form the brain connections that were missed. Look for a qualified professional that understands neurological development in children. This requires more than just sensory integration therapy, meditation or mindfulness. When we re-wire the brain the child is able to permanently integrate their sensory systems. Your child with ASD or SPD do NOT have to live their entire lives on a “sensory diet”; it can be fixed with the proper treatment.