Can’t stand the tags in your t-shirt? Won’t tolerate walking barefoot at the beach? Irritated by the person in line next to you who accidentally swipes up against your arm? If any of these situations sound familiar for either you or your child, it may be the tactile sensory system working in hyperdrive due to tactile defensiveness.
Tactile input is defined as information that we receive from skin receptors about touch, pressure, temperature, and pain. Essentially, tactile is anything connected to the sense of touch. As the largest organ of the human body, the skin receives constant tactile input. Tactile defensiveness, sometimes referred to as tactile hypersensitivity or tactile sensitivity, is an over responsiveness to tactile input. Children with tactile defensiveness may exhibit a low threshold for registering a tactile sense. For many people, the majority of tactile stimuli are perceived with neutrality. For individuals with tactile sensitivity, specific tactile sensory input may be perceived as noxious, resulting either in purposeful avoidance or a decrease in organization of behavior as a response.
Tactile defensiveness is a specific deficit within the larger umbrella of sensory integration. Sensory integration refers to the body’s ability to receive, interpret, and respond to sensory information from the environment. How a person perceives sensory input is entirely unique from one individual to another. Deficits in sensory integration will be apparent if the response to said sensory input is not functional.
Tactile defensiveness may look like the following with your loved one:
For example, as someone with “typical” sensory integration, they may not enjoy having the tag of their t-shirt rubbing against their neck, but they will still be able to carry on with their day, eventually forgetting about the tag. For someone who is tactile defensive, their day may be impacted by the tag, likely limiting his or her ability to participate in daily tasks. Potentially this could result in an all-out meltdown until the sensory stimulus (the tag) is removed. Even once removed, he or she may require additional recovery time.
If you suspect that your child is struggling with tactile defensiveness, some of our favorite tactile sensory activities or preparatory strategies include:
Using a towel after bath time or a blanket upon waking up before changing from pajamas to daytime clothing, spend time either rubbing your child’s extremities vigorously or wrapping your child up for a tight hold. Who doesn’t love a good burrito?!
Instead of walking down the hallway to the bathroom, have your child frog jump to the bathroom. Instead of walking to the kitchen for breakfast, try a bear walk on hands and feet. Animal walks are an excellent tool for both proprioceptive (changing body position) and vestibular (changing head position) sensory input. The heavy work offered to your child’s muscles and joints when participating in animal walks can be a helpful tool for regulation.
Working in the kitchen offers ample opportunities for graded tactile exploration. If your child is resistant to participating, start by having him or her explore ingredients in their containers, making sure to talk about the properties of the foods. For example, explain and shake the bottle of vanilla so that your child can hear and visualize that it’s a liquid. Squish the bag of brown sugar and discuss how it is moldable or crumbly.
As your child’s confidence or comfort increases, he can progress to pouring ingredients from a measuring cup, stirring ingredients with a spoon, or using a rolling pin to flatten the dough. Eventually, your child may be ready to knead the bread with the heel of his hand or roll the cookie dough between his palms.Utilize utensils to interact with the ingredients until your child is ready to engage with his hands.
Keep in mind, these activities are meant to be enjoyable; there should be no pressure for the child to interact and engage outside of his comfort zone.
Oral defensiveness refers to an aversion of tactile sensations in and around the mouth and may be addressed in occupational and feeding therapy. The same way that we encourage heavy work for the larger joints and muscles of the body, we can offer heavy work to the jaw, tongue, and muscles of the cheek. Offering opportunities for eating chewy foods (e.g. gum, if safe, dried fruits, jerky) or drinking a thick smoothie through a straw offer potentially calming, regulating proprioceptive input to the structures of the mouth which may be a helpful oral defensiveness activity.
The above tactile activities are general and non-specific. They are meant to offer a jumping off point. If you suspect that your child may be having tactile defensiveness, please speak with your occupational therapist for an individualized plan.
Samantha Cooper is a pediatric occupational therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles. When not engaging her clients through play, Samantha can be found balancing her love for ice-cream with spin or barre classes or trying to cuddle her dog, Cassidy, who would much rather have her personal space.
At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to pediatric therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. We embrace differences with an understanding that individualized programs work better. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.