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Tactile defensiveness

Tactile defensiveness

So my child is tactile defensive… Now What?

romy kruger 1By Romy Kruger

You’ve done the research, you’ve succumbed to the hair washing battles, shoes are a matter of absolute necessity and the food repertoire is limited but it works. It’s clear that your child is experiencing an over sensitivity within his tactile/touch system but how can you help him to further explore his world without this trauma and fear?

It is important to remember that your child is not actively choosing to not touch something or not eat something, or to have a total meltdown during grooming or when coming into physical contact with another person. Instead your child is feeling an intense sense of discomfort which is resulting in the behaviour you are seeing. It is not uncommon for a child with tactile defensiveness to react aggressively towards someone who bumps into him or comes too close. Although at times it can feel like your child is behaving this way simply to spite you and cause a scene, tactile defensiveness is a very real, very painful ordeal.

A child experiencing tactile defensiveness (TD) needs to be in occupational therapy. The core of the neurology driving the tactile system needs to be rewired to start feeling things “normally”. An OT is the best person to do this. An Occupational Therapist will introduce the Wilbarger Deep Pressure Proprioceptive Technique, also known as the brushing protocol. This involves brushing your child’s body with a specially designed brush in a very specific way. The brushing is followed by deep pressure joint compressions. It essential that this is done by a therapist who has been trained in this technique and can teach you, the parent, how to do it at home.

At home however, there is still so much you can do. Firstly, you can provide your child with deep pressure input through massage, pushing down on the muscles and joints and engaging them in heavy play such as pulling, pushing, jumping and carrying heavy objects. This kind of proprioceptive input acts as an organizer of the tactile system and can also be very calming.

Secondly, give your child the words for what he is feeling. Introduce words like sticky, bumpy, rough, scratchy, claustrophobic, gooey, etc. into your child’s vocabulary. This will help him to better identify what he is feeling and thus allows him to explain to you when he doesn’t like something instead of just falling apart.

Thirdly, introduce new textures to your child slowly in an encouraging and enthusiastic way. Never force your child to touch something he doesn’t want to. Forcing a child to touch something he perceives as threatening will only result in creating more trauma. Sometimes providing gloves, allowing your child to use your hands to touch or a tool such as a paintbrush or a sponge can be a helpful way of introducing new textures. Having a towel or washcloth handy for quick wiping away of the substance on the hand is also reassuring.

Here are some suggestions of tactile experiences you can introduce:

  • Hiding toys in uncooked lentils, beans or rice
  • Playing with jelly
  • Water play
  • Finger painting
  • Eating with his hands
  • Feathers
  • Vibrating toys such as massagers
  • Deep pressure massages with body lotion or oil
  • Being wrapped up tightly in a blanket like a hotdog for consistent deep pressure
  • Wearing tight clothing or spandex under normal clothing to provide deep pressure
  • Playing with different temperature water
  • Playdough
  • Clay
  • Baking
  • Using different sponges or cloths
  • Messy play such as shaving foam when in the bath or shower
  • Jelli Baf
  • Water beads
  • Seamless socks or sports socks which tend to be thicker, tighter and have less seams

Tactile defensiveness can rule a child’s life and prevent him from engaging in his environment and thus impact his learning and development. If you are concerned that your child is over sensitive within his touch system chat to an Occupational Therapist who is trained in Sensory Integration Therapy.