Let’s Learn about the Tactile System

by Kira Selden, MS, OTR/L

Imagine wearing a scratchy sweater all day or walking around in wet socks all afternoon. Being in constant discomfort due to touch sensations is what children with tactile defensiveness experience every day. Tactile defensiveness is the tendency to be overly sensitive to certain types of touch or textures that are typically not bothersome to others. Our sense of touch, or tactile perception, consists of sensations that we perceive through receptors in our skin such as pressure, temperature, pain, and vibration. Tactile perception is critical for development and numerous daily life activities such as eating, sleeping and bathing. Touch is important for emotional and social attachment, body awareness, regulating temperature and object recognition. Therefore, challenges processing touch and experiencing tactile defensiveness can hinder development and participation in everyday activities.  

Children with sensitivity to touch often dislike having their hair or face washed and become distressed by going to the dentist or getting their hair cut. They may have negative reactions to certain types of clothing or prefer to wear long sleeved shirts to keep their arms covered, even during the summer. Children with tactile defensiveness often avoid playing with sand, finger paint, shaving cream, or other messy textures and dislike walking barefoot in the grass or sand. Tickling, hugs and pats on the back are uncomfortable and children may have difficulty playing games such as tag with other children. This in turn may hinder social relationships with both friends and family.  

Although children with tactile defensiveness avoid certain kinds of touch, they sometimes need and seek out other types of touch more than others. While light, ticklish touch is often irritating and uncomfortable, firm, deep pressure can be calming and regulating. This is much like when we have a mosquito bite that will not stop itching – scratching or pressing down firmly on the bite overrides and stops the uncomfortable itching sensation. Therefore, engaging in activities that provide this deep pressure assists in modulating and processing touch sensations. Proprioceptive input gained by “heavy work” can have a similar effect. Deep pressure activities include making a “sandwich” with your child between couch cushions, and “heavy work” activities including carrying heavy items (such as grocery bags or full laundry baskets), assisting with chores such as vacuuming or sweeping, jumping, and wearing a weighted backpack or blanket. Playing with materials with varying textures – such as shaving cream, sand, water beads, play dough and bins of rice or beans – additionally promotes tactile processing. Encouraging active participation and following your child’s lead while exploring these new tactile sensations is best for promoting tactile processing, rather than passively applying new textures or forcing participation. This not only activates processing of tactile input but allows children to explore novel tactile experiences in a fun and engaging way!  

References: 

Ayres, Jean A. (2005). Sensory Integration and the Child. Western Psychological Services. 

Smith Roley, S. (2017). M1 Section III Lesson 3 Tactile Perception [PowerPoint slides].