Interoception and why “Listen to your body!" doesn't always work
Updated: Apr 8
First, let’s break down the word interoception. Intero refers to inside/inner and ception, like perception, is an awareness. So interoception is simply an awareness of what’s happening inside your body.
This includes things like hunger, thirst, and the need to go to the bathroom. Some version of this happens to most people at some point. You get really involved in a task and then realize that you’re starving! For people who are more likely to hyperfocus, such as ADHDers, this happens a lot more often. Autistic people tend to have a more general lack of interoception, hyperfocus or not. Pair an inability to sense hunger with food-related sensory sensitivities or limited preferences, and this can really affect an autistic person’s ability to feed themselves - especially kids who are still learning how to express their food likes and dislikes. Conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and certain chronic illnesses can also affect interoception.
So next, I want to introduce you to a common acronym used in therapy: HALT
H = hungry
A = angry
L = lonely
T = tired
This is basically a quick interoceptive and emotional check-in to help you determine if the cause of your reactivity to a situation is due to a basic need not being met. But how can we adapt this to be useful to someone who has limited or no interoception? Approach it logically.
When was the last time you had a drink of water?
More than an hour ago?
You’re probably thirsty.
Try that and see if you feel better in a few minutes.
When was the last time you ate?
More than 3 hours ago?
Time for a meal or snack.
You should feel better soon.
Did you sleep badly last night?
Is now an appropriate time to have a nap or can you make sure to use your sleep routine tonight?
Sleep will help.
Having a “low battery” for any of your basic needs is going to activate your nervous system. Your body engages fight or flight because it’s trying to force you to take care of it. This makes you more emotionally reactive, affect your ability to think clearly, and may trigger a meltdown. It’s especially important for parents of neurodivergent kids to help them meet their basic needs. This is not something children and even teens should be expected to do fully on their own, especially if you think they have limited interoception. They need you to be an external reminder to eat, drink, and sleep.
When you have a body that whispers its needs rather than shouts them, you need to be more proactive in making sure your basic needs are met. Try a bunch of different strategies or reminder techniques until you find one that work and that you'll stick with, at least for a while.