The tactile system, or sense of touch, refers to the information we receive though the receptors in our skin. It alerts us to pain and temperature and helps us discriminate the properties of things we come in contact with, i.e. texture, shape, size, and weight. From very early on in development this sense plays a crucial role in helping us gain awareness of our own bodies and understand everything we come in contact with. Touch is considered one of our most basic senses since body awareness, motor planning, visual perception, and social/emotional development are so dependent on it.
The Tactile System:
There are general patterns to how different types of touch affect us. Short, light touch, like the tickle of a feather or an ant crawling on your skin can cause alertness such as a quickened heart rate and an immediate need for response. On the other hand a prolonged, deep pressure, such as a hug, is generally calming and can provide a sense of security. But what happens when a person’s tactile system is over or under responsive to touch? What would happen if an affectionate caress caused irritation or panic, or if objects always seemed to drop from your hands as soon as your attention moved elsewhere? Just imagine how stressful it would be to live in a constant fight or flight state because so many day to day events caused physical discomfort. And how frustrating it must be to learn new skills when you can’t adequately feel the objects you’re using!
Red flags that your child may be experiencing difficulties with tactile processing include:
- Becoming overly upset about having his hair washed, brushed or cut
- Having his nails cut, or teeth brushed
- Avoiding or overreacting to touch from others, particularly when it’s unexpected
- Showing irritation over tags or particular types of clothing such as jerseys or jeans
- Isolating themselves from groups or preferring to play alone
- Over sensitivity to temperature or decreased awareness of extreme temperatures
- Over or under reactive to pain
- Frequently dropping objects out of his hands or using inappropriate force on objects such as squeezing his pencil too hard or crumpling his papers
- Having difficulty with, or being frustrated by, fine motor tasks such as drawing/writing, cutting, zipping, buttoning, tying laces, etc.
- Being a picky eater or showing a strong preference for specific textures/types of food
- Anxiety over standing in line or being in crowds
- Disliking socks and shoes or alternatively, avoiding walking barefoot, especially on textures such as grass or sand
- Seeking out deep pressure rather than light touch
- Preferring tight clothing rather than loose-fitting garments that may rub on skin
- Insisting on pants and long sleeves even in hot weather, or very little clothing even in cold weather
- Avoiding or overreacting to wet or messy textures
- Not noticing a messy face or hands
A general rule of thumb for these kids is to engage in deep pressure or heavy work activities often, as this is the most organizing and grounding form of touch. If these sound like things your child is struggling with, consult with an occupational therapist to get a clearer profile of his sensory needs. Your OT can help you gain a better understanding of why your child exhibits certain behaviors and create an individualized plan to make him more comfortable in his own skin!