What is Tactile Sensitivity?
Tactile difficulties in children is described as an unusual or increased sensitivity to touch that makes the person feel peculiar, different, noxious or in pain. It is also known as tactile defensiveness or hypersensitivity. Like all sensory issues it can be anywhere from the very mild to severe range. These people can become over whelmed with touch and can often lead to avoiding touch when possible. They may be sent into the fight or flight mode over the smallest issues around touch. It is important to remember that children are all different and it effects them in different ways.
Tactile issues can influence children's daily living activities such as grooming. bathing and dressing. It can also impact motor skills and social development. This further impacts self esteem and confidence. Lower confidence and self esteem may contribute to anxiety issues.
Often these children complain about clothing fabrics which they refuse to wear, or that the fabric itches them or scratches their skin. This can often be a knitted wool and this can impact the wearing of certain clothing such as jumpers, scarves, socks or gloves. They usually complain about the feel of the shirt label at the back of their neck. They may want looser clothing or they may prefer very tight clothes. They can complain about seams inside of clothes as being uncomfortable in socks, jeans or tops. Often the labels irritate their skin and cause them to rub their neck or they try to re-position the label.
These children dislike their hair being brushed or combed or being cut. They do not like their nails being cut. They do not like the feel of clay, sand, art supplies on their hands and constantly want to rub it off. Sometimes they will tolerate play dough, but can not tolerate clay or vice versa. They can often request to wash their hands. They often do not like the feel of sand or grass on their feet. They often do not like to go barefoot. These children can have an aversion to changing nappies, changing clothing and putting cream on their face, or having their nose wiped.
Often these children can become fussy or picky eaters. They only want to eat certain textures of food.
Has the teacher commented to you about your child's behaviour when they have to to line up in the yard or in class. Does the child stand out of the line or does he push a child when lining up, or does he refuse to line up. One of the reasons for this may be that the child has tactile sensitivities.
These children can often shy away from touch, or pull away, or tolerate it, but find it very hard. This can be the reason why they do not like crowded or busy shopping centers, or places where people constantly bump or push past them. Often they can resort to hiding behind the couch when visitors come, or hiding under the table in a busy classroom. At school they can become distressed during assembly or busy canteen areas or on the yard where other children can brush pass them suddenly. Children who are very sensitive can have difficulty with the feel of wind on their faces. There is often an aversion to being tickled, suddenly being approached, and suddenly being picked up.
When a child has difficulty in crowded places or being close to others, it can influence team work and group work. They can also have difficulty with touching or playing with some objects, toys, textures, and so forth. This can impact on their developmental milestones due to lack of exposure. Fine motor skills develop by playing and using objects, tools and toys which stimulate the fingers and hand activities to promote fhese skills. Not wanting to play football as often as they do not like it when other children bump into them, brush past them or stand close to them can impact gross motor skill development. The avoidance of these types of activities can impact visual perception, social and other skills. Exposure to tasks, games, sports, playgrounds, team games and so forth helps to develop skills. Aversion to some of these activities can delay skills. Their typical friends on the other hand, are exploring their environments and their skills are developing more rapidly. This in turn impacts on self esteem and confidence. Being stressed or fearful of these situations can encourage disruptive, or aggressive behaviours verbally or physically.
Adults with Tactile Defensiveness
Adults can have difficulty putting certain types of make up on their faces. They can avoid oily creams and dislike certain body massages. It can impact an adult with social events such as an aversion to crowded parties, pop concerts, sporting events and so forth. It can cause an adult to withdraw socially which impacts on community involvement and building social circles. The majority of adults manage to cope with their tactile defensive issues by compensating with strategies which work well for them as an individual. For example shopping earlier in the morning or later at night and in off peak times when the shops are not so busy.
Can Tactile Defensiveness be treated.
A child can slowly desensitize themselves with some of the tactile issues under the guidance of an Occupational Therapist. A sensory assessment would be completed to determine how their sensory issues are impacting their functional daily skills. The Occupational therapist can draw up a sensory diet to slowly desensitize the child in a safe environment. Strategies must be done under the supervision of an Occupational Therapist as over exposure can be very stressful for a child. It is important to address disruptive and aggressive behaviours in order for the child to function appropriately in society and social situations despite their sensory challenges.
Some strategies to use under an OT's guidance are:
1. Remove labels by cutting them off tshirts or tops
2. Do not approach a tactile defensive person unexpectedly from behind. Approach from the side. Call their name first so they can see you coming or if possible, approach them from the front. Do not stand directly in front of them so they feel trapped. Standing slightly to the side would be preferable.
3. Allow the child to stand at the back or first in line, so they can step away from touching others.
4. There are sensory friendly hairdressers that cater for children who are afraid of getting their hair cut.
5. Never use light touch with a tactile defensive child. Always apply slow deeper pressure when touching. Deeper pressure is calming. Bear hugs are usually easier for the child to tolerate.
6.When sitting on the floor for circle time place a cushion or floor carpet tile to give a boundary for where the children should be seated.
7.It is easier for children to tolerate touch that is in their control. Try getting the child to brush their hair themselves.
8. Gradually expose your child to experiences they find hard to tolerate. Do it on a dip in then dip out basis, slowly increasing the dip in time as the child learns to tolerate the experience. Never force a child to do anything they are not happy with.
9. Heavy work activities are organizing for children with sensory challenges. This would involve pushing and pulling activities, carrying of books, pushing on a wall, brisk marching, deep pressure, carrying a laundry basket, sweeping the floor, helping carry out the groceries from the car, helping teachers hand out class books, placing chair up on table over night, taking the chair down in the morning, when baking bread - kneading of bread, activities involving clay and so forth.
10. Do not surprize the child with experiences. Give warning and let them see you coming.
11. Contact your OT to assess, provide and supervise a specific sensory diet for your child. Always address sensory needs under the guidance of an OT.
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As with all activities involving children, please take great care to ensure all sharp objects are moved out of reach, and that parental supervision is available at all times. Some activities suggested make use of small objects that may cause a choking hazard for young children. Keep small objects out of reach of young children!
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