Tactile Defensiveness... So THAT'S Why He Acts That Way!

Children who have tactile defensiveness are sensitive to touch sensations and can be easily overwhelmed by, and fearful of, ordinary daily experiences and activities.

Sensory defensiveness can prevent a child from play and interactions critical to learning and social interactions.

Often, children with tactile defensiveness (hypersensitivity to touch/tactile input) will avoid touching, become fearful of, or bothered by the following:

  • textured materials/items
  • "messy" things
  • vibrating toys, etc.
  • a hug
  • a kiss
  • certain clothing textures
  • rough or bumpy bed sheets
  • seams on socks ( click here to find out about seamless socks )
  • tags on shirts
  • light touch
  • hands or face being dirty
  • shoes and/or sandals
  • wind blowing on bare skin
  • bare feet touching grass or sand


  • Does Your Child Have Sensory Defensiveness? Check Out The Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist!


    Many children with tactile defensiveness will only use their fingertips (if they even DO touch certain things) when playing with sand, glue, paint, play-doh, food, glitter etc. Consequently, their play is limited and so is their ability to engage in learning experiences.

    Children may become fearful, avoid activities, withdraw, or act out as their body responds with a "fight-or-flight" response.

    Why does this happen? It's all about the way in which one's nervous system interprets touch sensations and stimulation. I suspect you too would react with a "fight back" or "flee" response if any of the above listed items to YOU felt like sandpaper rubbing against your skin or 10 spiders crawling up your arm that you can't get off.

    It is not their fault! It is absolutely 100% about the WAY in which their nervous system interprets a tactile stimulus! Please don't blame them or punish them... be proactive and help them get the treatment and accommodations they need!

    (Note: It is not uncommon for a child with tactile defensiveness to become aggressive towards other children if they are touched or bumped into at school. Be aware of this type of reaction and be proactive by putting them in the front or end of a line, for example).

    To date, the best two treatments available to help decrease tactile defensiveness are The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol and the use of deep pressure/weighted products (links to both are provided below).

    A child with tactile defensiveness needs to be in OT! They need to have the underlying sensory defensiveness addressed in order to achieve the proper developmental milestones and social interactions necessary. It will not go away on it's own! If you need "proof", read Karen's Story. (By the way, Karen just started OT including the brushing protocol; her defensiveness is finally beginning to subside!)

    Coupled with OT, a good sensory diet and home program will help. You will find some ideas for activities/games/products to use and "how" to use them below.

    It is our goal to introduce tactile experiences slowly and gradually as the child is ready to experience them, so this defensive/aversive reaction is avoided!

    A child with tactile defensiveness should never be forced to touch anything they do not want to, as this will cause further apprehension and avoidance.

    It is up to us to encourage, explain, understand and communicate with the child as we attempt to introduce touch sensations to them in a safe and non-threatening way.



    Suggestions For Tactile Experiences & Input (or accommodations):

  • Play-doh / Silly Putty / Scented Play-doh
  • Colored glue... sprinkle glitter on it using finger tip or shaker
  • Funny Foam or shaving cream
  • "Gooze" or "Zyrofoam"
  • "Glop"... which is homemade with cornstarch and water

    Check Out A Huge List Of Play Doh Recipes; A Fun Way To "Treat" Tactile Defensiveness!

  • Feathers
  • Finding objects buried in beans or rice (uncooked)
  • Fingerpainting with pudding or fingerpaints
  • Towel rub down after a warm bath (firm, quick strokes)
  • Using various sponges, washcloths, and loofahs in the bath
  • Messy play in the tub where they can immediately wash off if bothered by it
  • Lotion massage to extremities
  • Wearing spandex or lycra exercise-type clothes under regular clothes for calming, evenly distributed deep pressure input
  • Wear moccasins instead of shoes
  • Seamless socks
  • Vibrating toys or massagers... (if child is fearful of it, let him control the on/off switch, let him massage you or a stuffed animal first. When he is ready you can help him or he can do it himself. Never use it on the stomach... stop if he looks uncomfortable)
  • sand and water tables
  • sandbox and beach sand toys

    Note: if the child with tactile defensiveness is fearful of any materials, have him play with it in a less threatening way. For example, he can use your hands to start touching it, he can put objects in or out of the "messy" materials, or he can push toy cars or plastic animals through it etc.

    After he begins to feel safe, slowly encourage him to try other fun ways which you model... splatting it, poking, pulling, rolling etc. Eventually encourage the use of the whole hand (including palm).


    For More On This Check Out The Treatment Guidelines Article

    Recommended Products For "Messy Play"

    (Simply click on any of the products to find out more)



     

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