By Aimee York, OT.
What is Tactile Defensiveness?
All babies are born with a myriad of senses that help us learn, move through our environment, explore and grow as people. Often we refer to our five basic senses as touch, sight, sound, smell, and hearing. There are many more ‘hidden’ senses, but more on that at a later time.
Tactile, or our touch sense, is related to the sensory input we feel whenever anything touches our skin. The skin on our body is our largest organ, and hence we receive large amounts of input each and every day.
Types of Touch
Touch sensations come in many different forms, the two main ones being light touch or deep pressure. Light touch is usually associated with a tickling or prickly feeling, often inciting a reaction of ‘argh get it off me’. This may include an insect crawling on your skin, a loose thread tickling you, or walking through a cob web.
Deep pressure is usually a lot more comforting. This strong, firm and consistent touch information relaxes the body and feels ‘nice’. This may include big hugs, wearing compression garments, or being tucked into bed tightly.
What happens when a child is Defensive?
Often we regulate all this touch information to decide if we like it, if it’s dangerous, or if we want to seek it out/avoid it. Sometimes this information can come into our bodies in a confusing or inefficient way. This leads to a dysfunctional reaction to the touch information, also known as Tactile Defensiveness. Basically, the touch information coming into the child’s body is misinterpreted, leading to a ‘defensive’ reaction.
Three Ways to Identify and Help Tactile Defensiveness
Does this sound like you?
- “My child becomes easily agitated at clothing tags or rough seems in his shirts or pants. Sometimes he refuses to wear shoes and socks!”
- “My child refuses to engage in messy play. No glue, play dough, mud or sand. It’s a nightmare at Kindy.”
- “My child is a fussy eater when it comes to different textures. She won’t eat anything soft and mushy like mashed potatoes or yoghurt. Only crunchy foods like chips or nuts.”
Then try these simple techniques:
- Massage your child. This promotes a deep pressure through their body which reduces tactile defensiveness. Also take this time to bond and talk about their day.
- Use a graded approach to messy play. Leave wet textures (goo, wet mud, play dough) until last. Start with dry textures such as pebbles, marbles and uncooked rice to play with.
- Experiment with food. Don’t be afraid to make a game of it and get your child involved. Make magic potions using the blender or potato masher. Try different methods of cooking such as steaming vegies or boiling them in a chicken stock to add flavour. Again, use a graded approach to introduce different textures of food into your child’s diet.
If your child requires further assistance to help support their tactile defensiveness, then your best bet is to call an occupational therapist. They specialise in sensory processing challenges such as tactile defensiveness.
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