What is tactile sensitivity?
Tactile sensitivity or hypersensitivity is an unusual or increased sensitivity to touch that makes the person feel peculiar, noxious, or even in pain. It is also called tactile defensiveness or tactile over-sensitivity. Like other sensory processing issues, tactile sensitivity can run from mild to severe. It is thought to be caused by the way the brain processes tactile input. For these individuals, touch makes the person feel overwhelmed and often leads to avoiding touch when possible. They may be sent into fight or flight over very small, everyday touch sensations.
Hyposensitivities and Hypersensitivities
It’s interesting to note that there are also individuals who have tactile under-sensitivity, also called tactile under-responsiveness. Those who are hyposensitive to tactile input are underwhelmed by the world around them and seek out additional sensory information to feel content. They can’t feel large changes in temperature or wind on their body etc.
An excellent book for you and your family to learn about sensory issues is The Goodenoughs Get in Sync ~New Edition~ 5 Family Members Overcome their Special Sensory Issues by Carol Knanowitz,. Read my review of this book here.
A Great book: Issue Tissue Featuring Ricky Sticky – A Children’s Book About Overcoming Tactile Sensitivity by Maya Wolf, MBA, OTR/L, and Mara Schwartz, BA. Review here.
Ten Common Signs of Tactile Sensitivity
People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and cognitive disabilities often experience varying degrees of tactile sensitivity. Parents should be aware of the ways a very young child might react when he is overwhelmed by sensory overload because it will probably manifest itself with behavior problems or meltdowns. This is his only way of communicating his tactile sensitivity.
The individuals I know who have tactile sensitivities likened their unpleasant feeling to the way some people cringe at the sound of a fingernail scratching a blackboard. I have a granddaughter with tactile sensitivities; therefore I know how difficult it is for parents of a young child with the same issues. Some parents say they live in the “Land of TOO” – too hot, too cold, too bright, too tight, too hard, too rough, etc. These are some of the common signs of tactile sensitivity parents can see in their child. Each child may be different and the severity of the reactions will vary.
- They dislike clothing, shoes, hats, mittens. They complain about the tags, the fastening, the type of fabric, the style, etc.
- They hate to have their hair combed, washed, or cut.
- They are the children who do not want to get their hands dirty or do not want to touch many things because it feels unpleasant. They rush to wash or wipe their hands making it difficult to finish what they are trying to do. Messy art classes are awful for them.
- Some toddlers refuse to be held or touched.
- Others are unable to tolerate the sensation of food in the mouth or food or a tooth brush touching their teeth. Bringing them to the dentist is a nightmare!
- In severe cases a child may even refuse to swallow food.
- They cry out in pain because of the feel of the wind on their skin or sand and grass on their feet.
- Their eyes might be very sensitive too and they will need to blink at the slightest amount of cold wind.
- For some individuals tickling can be intolerable.
- Some have difficulty participating in gym activities or sport teams because the foot gear and sport uniforms are just simply too uncomfortable.
Parents should also know that tactile oversensitivity also interferes with the development of fine motor and gross motor skills and may impede other developmental milestones. A young child explores and learns about his world by touching and mouthing; however, children with sensory challenges miss out on gathering information from people and things because they avoid touch and do not want to interact with others or their environment.
How Is Tactile Sensitivity Treated?
The good news is that as soon as a child is evaluated with sensory processing difficulties, they can receive help from an occupational therapist. A plan for tactile desensitization will be drawn up and therapy sessions by the OT will be scheduled. Parents will be shown techniques that may include a “sensory diet” or the use of a “sensory box” they can use at home to help their overly sensitive child. With time and treatment, the amount of tactile stimulation your child can tolerate will increase.
Occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment at the office of a therapist. During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are designed so the child is constantly challenged. The activities are usually “framed for success” so the child feels happy and proud of his accomplishments.
I suggest you check the books in the category Sensory Issues on Special Needs Book Review . Two books about parenting a child with sensory issues and interviews with the authors I often recommend to parents are the following:
- Chynna T. Laird ‘s book Not Just Spirited: A Mom’s Sensational Journey with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
Other helpful posts:
- Review of Growing Up with Sensory Issues: Insider Tips from a Woman with Autism by Jennifer McIlwee Myers