Tactile Defensiveness

Ben’s* mom describes her child as “temperamental and anxious”. “He doesn’t like to go anywhere without me, even getting him to school has been a challenge. “ Ben* is tactile defensive. He does not like to be hugged and cuddled, and if his mom wants to hold his hand, he will only allow her to hold onto his little finger. He is very particular about the clothes that he wears, and will not tolerate having his nails cut. He hates getting dirty and will not play with glue or paints. He is an extremely fussy eater and is limited to very bland foods with certain textures. He gets very stressed in busy environments, and is happiest playing on his own.

Tactile defensiveness is the tendency to react negatively and emotionally to touch sensations that other people may hardly feel or notice. It’s a result of poor processing of this type of sensation and thus the brain is over-sensitive to touch and views many typical touch sensations as being harmful thus resulting in the flight-fright-fight response.
 
Signs to look out for:

  • Dislikes having face or hair washed.
  • Dislikes having teeth cleaned and resists tooth-brushing.
  • Overly distressed when having hair/ finger-nails/ toe-nails cut.
  • Dislikes being touched and pulls away from hugs and cuddles.
  • Displays negative reactions to certain types of clothing.
  • Dislikes putting hands in sand, paint, play-dough etc.
  • Avoids going barefoot – especially on sand or grass.
  • Seems overly fussy about the temperature or texture of food.

If your child has more than two or three of these signs, it may be helpful to consult an Occupational Therapist trained in Sensory Integration, to see if your child presents with Tactile Defensiveness.
 
Tips on stimulating the tactile system:

  • Provide your baby with lots of touch input – swaddling with a blanket; cuddles, kisses, tickles and massage.
  • Let your toddler crawl over different textures – grass, sand, carpets, floors, cushions, blankets etc.
  • Let them play outside without their clothes and shoes so that they can experience the feel of different textures on their skin.
  • Engage in creative tactile tasks like finger painting, paper mache, using glue, playing with glitter, modelling with clay or dough or using tissue paper.
  • Hide objects to be found in bowls of jelly, rice, pasta, sand or shaving cream.
  • Allow your child to help with baking and cooking i.e. kneading bread dough or handling soggy spaghetti.
  • Play dress up games where your child can feel different textures of clothes on their skin, clips in their hair, jewellery etc.
  • Most importantly allow your child to get dirty and messy and to enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from exploring new sensations of touch, texture and temperature. This will allow their sensory system to learn to process this information in a way that is healthy and optimises their response to touch!

 
Written By Tamaryn Hunter – BSc (Occupational Therapy) – Occupational Therapist

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