We all know that tactile defensiveness impacts everything. Every day.
Tactile defensiveness is when someone has a negative reaction to being touched by another person, object, or anything that could contact their skin. This makes them “defensive” against anything touching them.
You’re running late for school, the lunches are a weird mix of leftovers and fruit rollups, and you can’t even find your kiddo’s left shoe.
To make matters worse, you feel like you’ve already run a marathon and your little guy is crying in the middle of his bedroom wearing nothing but his favorite Spiderman underwear.
Does this sound familiar?
When your child has tactile sensitivity, mornings can feel like a scene from Sparta instead of a page from Better Homes and Gardens.
Everything can be a struggle, especially when it comes to clothing. But, there are tactile defensiveness strategies that can make life a little easier.
In this post we’ll talk about:
- What tactile defensiveness feels like
- 5 tips for handling tactile defensiveness and sensitivity
- How simple exercises can make life-long impacts on your child’s ability to tolerate tactile stimuli
What is Tactile Defensiveness
Even though tactile defensiveness sounds like a fancy word, it simply means to having a negative reaction to touch. The proprioceptive system processes sensory input as though it was more intense than it actually was.
Tactile defensiveness is also known as touch sensitivity, tactile sensitivity, and tactile hypersensitivity. Don’t worry, they all mean the same thing.
Most commonly seen in children who are over responsive or hyper responsive to sensory input, tactile defensiveness can increase feelings of anxiety and impede daily functioning.
While tactile defensiveness is often seen with autism, it can impact any child that struggles with sensory processing.
What are Some Signs of Tactile Defensiveness?
Tactile defensiveness can look like many different things. Here are some examples:
- Shies away from being touched
- Becomes anxious when putting on clothes or refuses to put on any clothes at all
- Avoids crowded or noisy places
- Becomes quickly overwhelmed
- Doesn’t like to get messy and doesn’t like to touch new objects or textures
- Struggles with daily activities that involve tactile input such as teeth brushing or bathing.
If you’re wondering whether your kiddo has touch sensitivities, talk with your child’s doctor or occupational therapist. They will be able to guide you through a formal evaluation and give you personalized tips for addressing it.
Some kiddos will very clearly demonstrate their tactile defensiveness while, for others, it may not be so obvious. It’s always good to check with a professional to see if some of the signs you’re noticing are more subtle clues about touch sensitivities.
What’s it Like to Have Tactile Sensitivities?
As we go throughout the day, we have a lot of sensory experiences. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel is sensory information that our brains need to process.
When we don’t struggle with sensory issues, there is a lot of sensory information that our brains filter out and tell us not to worry about.
For the most part, we don’t notice background noises, small breezes, or the feel of our clothes. Our brains understand that these sensations are nonthreatening and are not worthy of our attention.
When sensory issues come into play, these nonthreatening sensations become more apparent. Instead of filtering out background noises, small breezes, and the feeling of clothes, the brain thinks they’re threats that need to be dealt with. The brain tells the body to go into fight or flight mode and to do everything in its power to get rid of the threatening sensations.
Children that are hyper sensitive to sensory input are on high alert more often than others.
Sights, sounds, tastes, and touches overwhelm the nervous system and tell the body that there’s a threat that needs to be dealt with. Dealing with this threat is often accomplished by going into fight or flight mode and doing whatever possible to either eliminate the threat or be removed from it.
For those of you who don’t have tactile defensiveness, imagine the feeling you get when you walk into a coffee shop and see someone you’re not too fond of. You feel a rush of adrenaline, your body tenses, and you only have two options: fight or flight.
Whether you decide to confront the individual or forgo your morning coffee to avoid the situation, your body may take a while to settle down and feel calm again. This is what happens every time an individual with tactile defensiveness puts on clothes, gets brushed in a crowd, or touches a new texture.
Basically, it happens ALL OF THE TIME. And that’s stressful.
Because fight or flight is such an uncomfortable state to be in, many children shy away from situations they fear could trigger such a response, making them timid with new experiences.
When a child with tactile sensitivity is told to put on clothes, for example, it’s as though they are being told to intentionally overwhelm their bodies and send their sensory system to war.
Not only can the experience of putting on clothes be overwhelming, but the constant feeling of scratchy tags, poking seams, or uncomfortable fabric can cause anxiety for the entire day.
Anticipating a full day of being in fight or flight mode, it’s no wonder that many kids with tactile sensitivities have meltdowns when asked to get dressed.
Anything that your child comes into contact physically has the potential to overwhelm the nervous system under the umbrella of tactile defensiveness.
For kids with sensory issues, we most commonly see a negative reaction to tactile stimulus when getting dressed, playing with others, or eating food. In these categories, things that are new and unique pose the biggest challenge. This is why kids with tactile defensiveness are prone to wearing the same set of clothes and eat the same foods they are comfortable with.
Now that we understand the physiology behind tactile sensitivity, let’s talk about how to manage it.
Tips for Handling Tactile Defensiveness
Please read these tips with an understanding that every child is different and that some things will work for your child and some won’t. While these tips will give you a good place to start, you will need to do your own experimentation to discover what will work for you.
1. Deep Touch Pressure–Tactile Defensiveness Treatment
Deep touch pressure is valuable in creating short-term and long-term calming impacts on the nervous system. In the short-term, deep touch pressure tells the body that there isn’t a threat and that its ok to leave fight or flight mode. This is why tight hugs can be so effective in quelling a temper tantrum. In the long-term, studies have shown that regular deep touch pressure can help desensitize the body and help it to better cope with tactile stimulation.
Applying this to tactile defensiveness, it may be beneficial to incorporate deep touch pressure into your routine prior to getting dressed, touching a strange texture, or even getting up in the morning.
Talk with your occupational therapist about whether deep touch pressure is a good choice for your child and how best to implement it.
In addition, there are many studies pointing to the idea that deep touch pressure can help with quelling tactile sensitivities over the long-term.
So, any deep touch pressure activities that you incorporate into your routine now may go far in helping your child handle tactile stimulation moving forward.
While you may be able to incorporate deep touch pressure into your morning routine, itchy shirt tags, wind gushes, and bumps from classmates can aggravate the sensory system all day long. That amazing sensory work you did in the morning is likely to wear off by lunchtime.
So, keep that deep touch pressure going.
While deep touch pressure isn’t always easy to apply outside of the home, it’s possible. Try getting your child a weighted lap pad to use at school or get compression clothing to wear underneath school clothing. By providing the body with deep touch pressure throughout the day, you can help your child’s body stave off fight or flight mode for longer periods of time.
Here are some deep touch pressure activities to try out. Of course, always consult your child’s occupational therapist before adding anything to your child’s routine.
–do homework in a Cozy Canoe
–carry around weighted stuffed animals
–rolling a ball over the body
–wear compression clothing
–use a weighted lap pad
–use weighted vests
–enjoy explorative play. When your child is interested in something, they’re more likely to participate and try new things. Take their lead.
Compression Clothing and Base Layers–Make Deep Touch Pressure Last All Day
In addition to providing deep touch pressure throughout the day, compression clothing has the added benefit of being made from nonthreatening material. Usually made without seams and tags, compression clothing is generally very sensory friendly. To be clear, not all children are fond of compression clothing and, even if they’re up for it, they may need time to become familiar with it.
That being said, compression clothing can be a big help to children with tactile sensitivities, as it basically serves as a second skin that protects against unwanted or surprising tactile stimulation. With the skin covered by a favorable material, children are more likely to be tolerant to putting on other clothes on top of it.
If your child isn’t a fan of compression clothing, find a comparable base layer. Does your child have a favorite long sleeve shirt and pair of leggings? If so, get a number of sets of this base layer outfit and let them wear it under everything. Treat it as a second skin that serves to put a barrier between your child’s skin and the surrounding tactile world.
This base layer will not only help prevent unwanted tactile sensations, it will also ease your child’s mind during dressing, as they will know they have this second skin to protect them.
2. Avoid Light Touch and Unexpected Touch
When fingers gently brush against your child’s skin or your child is touched unexpectantly, this is like setting off an emergency alarm system in your child’s nervous system. With fight or flight mode in full force, your child will likely show an increase in anxiety and begin to act impulsively in order to stop the threatening sensations.
It’s important to make your child aware of situations that may be chaotic or overwhelming. If you are going to be visiting the shopping mall on a busy Saturday, mentally prepare your child for the crowds. Informing your child of the unexpected touch they may face beforehand will help them to prepare for it.
In addition, use your child’s clothing to your advantage when trying to limit the amount of unexpected touch they are exposed to. When entering chaotic environments, let your child dress in long sleeves, pants, sweatshirts, hats, and anything else that will mute the feelings of touch. Providing extra barriers between your child’s skin and the world around them will help lessen the impacts of unexpected tactile input.
3. Slow Down–The Difference Between a Meltdown and a Smooth Routine
When the days are busy and the family is running late, it can be tempting to throw clothes on your child and get out of the door as quickly as possible, or to rush them to participate in an activity. The problem is that this rush of sensory stimulation quickly overloads an already overloaded sensory system.
When the brain is already struggling to process incoming sensory stimuli, adding even more stimuli at a quick rate is only going to worsen the problem.
Build enough time into your routine to allow for more time during your dressing and activities. Let your child’s body acclimate to each new object of clothing before moving on to the next.
Let your child become full familiar with an activity before moving on.
Yes, I know how much patience this takes and that every fiber in your body will be itching to move faster. Fight it! Going slowly and letting your child go at their own pace will save you time in the long run as you stave off meltdowns.
4. Have Fun and Tackle Tactile Defensiveness at the Same Time
When your child has tactile sensitivities, they may shy away from touching objects for fear of getting overwhelmed. This can lead to social isolation and a general lack of enjoyment during activities. While this is a larger discussion that deserves its own post, in in general, a fear of tactile stimulation can make it hard to interact with the world. Think about how often we touch our clothes alone, let alone the 24/7 of the rest of the world’s tactile stimulation!
The more that our children can be exposed to new tactile experiences, the more accustomed they will become to them. The key is to build up to new experiences and not jump off the deep end right away (ie. Sand paper isn’t a great place to start).
The best way of doing this is to incorporate sensory experiences into play activities.
The guise of “fun” that’s often used by parents and therapists can turn scary sensory experiences into appealing sensory play. Your child might end up having so much fun that they don’t even notice they’re working on their tactile defensiveness!
Sensory play is essentially playing with textures, shapes, and sizes. Start by evaluating your child’s interests. If your child is obsessed with dinosaurs, this fun dinosaur kinetic sand game may be perfect. If your child loves princesses, try a princess costume. It’s really important to follow your child’s lead on this. Just because a certain type of science game has some great tactile elements, if your child hates science, don’t force it.
Don’t combine something your child hates with challenging tactile experiences, as this will turn them off from sensory play moving forward.
Here are some sensory play tools to get you started! I’ve tried to include activities covering a variety of themes and interest areas to show that sensory play really can be endless.
5. Teach Your Child That It’s Ok to be Different
I know I’m not the only one that wishes that compression clothing and weighted vests were more fashionable. How hard would that be?! Any fashion designers out there?! Unfortunately, tactile sensitivity doesn’t always lend itself to trendy fashion choices. Your child may be embarrassed to wear the same style of shirt or pants every day and may feel left out of peer conversations revolving around the newest trends. They may steer away from helpful weighted vests because they make them stand out among their peers.
Have conversations with your child about the importance of being unique and having pride in one’s personality. Focus on the benefits of the clothing and not the negatives, with comments emphasizing how awesome it is to have a unique style.
If there’s a fashion trend that your child is disappointed to not be a part of, use it as a motivating goal.
While your child may need to wear certain outfits now in order to feel safe, this isn’t to say they can’t grow and change. Having a goal that your child is passionate about will help them stay inspired to work on their tactile defensiveness.
This is also a chance to get creative. Instead of treating your child’s clothes as therapeutic necessities, treat them as artistic challenges. How can you maintain the therapeutic integrity of your child’s clothes, while also making them fun? Give your child agency in picking out clothes, decorating their clothes, and making fashion decisions overall. Maybe your child can tolerate hair accessories or hats. Steer attention away from a boring compression shirt by letting your child choose their accessories. Giving your child a sense of power over their tactile challenges will help them manage it and feel inspired to do so.
Tactile defensiveness isn’t an easy thing to manage. But, with the proper tools and techniques, you can help your child learn to cope. There isn’t one right answer, only the answer that’s right for your child. Do you have any clothing sensitivity strategies that have worked for you and your child?
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.