Tactile defensiveness is the hypersensitivity to touch. Children with tactile defensiveness notice touch more than others. They react negatively to unexpected, light touch and even to the anticipation of light touch. The child may react with a fight or flight response by being hostile to those around them or by fleeing from contact with people, finger paints, playdough, etc. Some children will withdraw passively by avoiding the object and people that cause distress. The receptors of the tactile system are in our skin so therefore it is not just our hands that can be hypersensitive to touch but our whole body.
When our tactile system is functioning well we are able to filter out which tactile information is important and which is not. Those with tactile defensiveness have difficulty ignoring input that is not important (e.g. the way their shirt feels, the light breeze on their face, etc.) and may appear distracted. Many children who do not enjoy light touch may actually enjoy deep pressure touch, like bear hugs or heavy blankets.
Signs of tactile defensiveness:
- Dislike brushing teeth or going to the dentist
- Dislike getting hair washed or cut
- Dislike wearing clothing or certain types of clothing, may prefer really tight clothing or baggier clothing
- Withdraw from being kissed or from a light touch
- Avoid playing with playdough, finger paints, etc.
- Immediately want to wipe hands when they get dirty
- Avoid playing in the dirt, mud, sand, grass, etc.
- Picky eater
Suggestions when working with children who have tactile defensiveness:
- Don’t approach or touch the child from behind
- Avoid light touch
- Use firm pressure when touching the child
- Allow the child to have their own space during circle time (sit on their own piece of carpet or on a bean bag chair, rocking chair, etc.)
- Have the child stand at the front or back of the line to minimize unexpected touch
- Create a “quiet corner” (bean bag chair, tent, teepee or blanket draped over table) in the classroom or in another supervised room where the child can go if they are starting to feel upset or over-stimulated
- Provide the child with deep pressure activities/movement breaks throughout the day (easiest to incorporate into daily class schedule as it is valuable for the whole class)
- Weighted items such as a weighted lap pad or a weighted snake around the shoulders can be used to provide that calming deep pressure touch
- Encourage the child to participate in sensory play activities
- It is important to encourage the child to participate but do not force them into doing anything they don’t want to do, we want to gradually incorporate some challenging textures/touch while keeping it fun and enjoyable
- The child may need to begin by just watching others take part in the activity, then move onto using a utensil (knife, paintbrush, rolling pin, cookie cutters) to play with the substance (fingerpaint, playdough, shaving cream, flubber etc.) and then finally to using their hands to play in it
- Subtle, gradual exposure is the key to successful sensory play