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5 Effective Ways to Tackle Tactile Defensiveness and Sensitivity--Sensory and Autism Basics

You’re running late for school, the lunches are a weird mix of leftovers and fruit rollups, and you can’t even find your son’s left shoe.

To make matters worse, you feel like you’ve already run a marathon and your son is crying in the middle of his bedroom wearing nothing but his favorite Spiderman underwear. 

Does this sound familiar?

When your child has tactile sensitivities, 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 ways to make tactile sensitivity easier to manage.

In this post we’ll talk about:

–Why tactile defensiveness and sensitivity happens

–The 5 best 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?

While tactile defensiveness sounds like a fancy and dramatic word, it simply refers to having a negative reaction to touch. The proprioceptive system processes sensory input as though it was more intense than it actually was. 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.

How do you know if your child has tactile defensiveness? Here are some classic signs:

  • 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.

Why Does My Child 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.

tactile-defensiveness-occupational-therapy-infographic
Whether you're an Occupational Therapist or a parent of a child with tactile defensiveness, this infographic will teach you what it feels like.

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--How to Make a long-term Impact on Your Child's Sensitivity

Temple Grandin became famous for discovering the benefits of deep touch pressure with her Squeeze Machine.

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. This may mean sleeping with a Sleep Sleeve, taking time for tight hugs before getting changed for a new activity, or playing a game of squishing under couch cushions before putting on pajamas for the night. Doing a deep pressure activity prior to doing anything sensory related can help the body calm down and be better prepared for the sensory stimuli to come.

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.

Want a deep dive into deep touch pressure? Check out my post about deep touch pressure, how it works, and why it’s so effective.

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.

–sleep with a Sleep Sleeve

–pillow squishing

–tight hugs

–do homework in a Cozy Canoe

–do heavy work like climbing, swinging, pushing, and pulling

–carry around weighted stuffed animals

–rolling a ball over the body

–wear compression clothing

–use a weighted lap pad

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 struggles with holding and touching strange textures, a good first step to tackling their sensory defensiveness can be a pair of gloves. The nice thing about gloves is that you can buy them in varying degrees of thickness. If your child is super sensitive, start out with thick gloves and decrease to thinner gloves as they become more tolerant of tactile stimulation.

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.

Here are some great sensory friendly compression clothing options to try:

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.

While light touch is anxiety producing, firm touch is calming. As I talked about in a previous post, deep touch pressure tells our bodies to reduce the flight or fight sympathetic nervous system impulses and increase the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system impulses. By using deep touch pressure with your child, you can help ease feelings of anxiety.

As far as tactile defensiveness is concerned, there is also research suggesting that continual application of deep touch pressure helps desensitize children to otherwise alarming tactile input.

Through research with her Squeeze Machine, Temple Grandin noticed an increased tolerance to tactile input following use, indicating that continual exposure to deep touch pressure can be beneficial to children with tactile defensiveness.

In addition to deep touch pressure, 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. How a Simple Brush can Help Your Kid Tolerate Tactile Input

Does the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol ring a bell? Sometimes referred to as brushing therapy, this type of treatment can help your child get used to tactile input. Some important notes about this protocol.

–Consult with your Occupational Therapist before beginning brushing therapy, There’s a certain strategy to follow that will be unique to your child.

–A series of brushing will be followed by a set of joint compression.

–Not just any old brush will do. You will need a special brush like the one to the right. 

–It’s a big undertaking, with sessions usually completed every 2 hours.

–If you want to get aquatinted with the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol before talking with your OT about how to implement it with your own child, check out the video below.

4. Slow Down--The Difference Between a Metdown 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.

5. Have Fun and Beat 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, academic depression, 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!

While this may sound bleak, tactile defensiveness is totally treatable and can be improved! And often in fun ways!

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. Click here for a recipe for Play Dough!

If you’ve heard of the slime trend, the water table fascination, or the sensory bin fad, it’s for good reason. Sensory play allows a child to challenge themselves without realizing it.

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!

Get the Best Tools for Sensory Play

Sensory play has no limits—essentially, it’s 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.

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?

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2 thoughts on “5 Effective Ways to Tackle Tactile Defensiveness and Sensitivity”

  1. Very interested to know if other people’s children are having this problem but specifically with paper? my son hates to touch white paper; comes out in goosebumps, and it is worse when his hands are wet. So at school he is not washing his hands. He’s been diagnosed with Irlen’s and has green paper, but still the TOUCH upsets him. We have just started him in nitrile gloves, which has stopped him chewing his nails and skin down (he’s been making himself bleed! – say he chews as he cant stand the sensation of a skin or nail tag on the paper). As one can imagine, school work and homework suffers greatly purely because of the medium of paper…

    1. Definitely! Paper can be a big issue. He would do well with an OT who can do some specialized sensitivity work with him. It sounds like you’re doing a great job of experimenting with different types of adaptations. Combining those adaptations with some tactile sensitivity strategies may really help.

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