Everything You Need to Know about the Tactile System
Before I was a mom, I'd never given a single passing thought to the role the tactile system plays in a person's behavior and ability to self-regulate. Then I became a mom to a baby with sensory processing issues which manifested very early on in extreme aversion to certain textures. Suddenly the term "tactile" took on new importance.
As an infant, my son preferred firm pressure. As long as he was swaddled as tight as a mummy or being carried snuggly in a baby wrap, he was calm and regulated. The rest of the time? Well, let's just say there was a lot of crying. A lot.
As a toddler, while other kids in our mommy 'n me class were happily finger painting, playing with playdoh or digging in the sand, he wouldn't go near any of those activities with a ten foot pole. Playing with toy cars or trucks was more his speed.
These scenarios are not uncommon amongst sensory kids. Most, but not all, children with sensory processing issues are impacted in their tactile system. That's because, along with the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, it forms the cornerstone of sensory processing.
The importance of the tactile system cannot be overstated. It is our largest sensory system, one which covers every inch of our bodies, and it's the first system to develop in the womb. It plays a huge role in the overall organization of the nervous system and has an enormous impact on a child's behavior.
Receptors under our skin's surface take in information about touch, changes in pressure, temperature, pain and vibrations. The receptors carry information to our brain regarding the quality or quantity of the sensation, our brain interprets the information and then decides how to respond.
Children with a well-developed tactile sense are secure and organized in their bodies and are able to attend to and respond to all the other sensory input they encounter each day. They are curious about and driven to explore their enviroment which stimulates brain development by giving them more exposure to sensory input.
Children with tactile processing issues register certain sensations as "threats" causing them to overreact to the everyday demands of life, to have trouble doing things on their own and to avoid exploring their environment. When a child is fearful about exploring his environment he will have less exposure to sensory input and fewer opportunities for sensory integration which is the foundation of brain development; when the tactile system isn’t functioning well, it directly impacts a child’s development.
Kids with tactile processing issues can have sensory modulation issues and/or sensory discrimination issues. Sensory modulation issues are when the brain either over responds or under responds to sensory input. When kids over respond to tactile input they will avoid or withdraw from it and are said to be "tactile defensive."
Signs of tactile defensiveness:
- Fearful of crowds
- Dislikes hair brushing, teeth brushing, bathing, cutting nails
- Seems anxious or fearful of light touch
- Resists hugs and cuddles (an infant who doesn't like to be held)
- Overreacts to minor scrapes and cuts
- Extremely ticklish
- Walks on tiptoes
- Refuses to walk barefoot on certain surfaces (grass, sand)
- Responds with emotional intensity to light touch
- Completely avoids messy play
- Finds cold or warm weather extremely uncomfortable
- Gets very upset by tags in clothing
- Very picky about clothing
- Picky eater
Other kids with modulation issues under respond to tactile input. This is called "tactile seeking" meaning the more tactile input these kiddos can get, the better; they actively seek it out.
Signs of tactile seeking:
- Constantly touches everything
- Enjoys strong flavors
- Frequently mouths objects
- High pain tolerance
- Engages in rough play- unaware when hurting others
- Doesn't notice light touch
- Not aware of face being dirty or nose running
- Engages in behaviors like biting, punching, hitting, skin picking, headbanging
- Not impacted by temperature- will go outside without a jacket even when it's extremely cold or wear long sleeves when it's hot
- Seeks out messy play- the messier, the better!
My younger son is a tactile seeker. He LOVES messy play, is the world's messiest eater, can take a huge fall and jump up like nothing happened and loves to engage in rough and tumble play.
Sensory discrimination issues happen when the brain struggles to interpret and give meaning to sensory input. A child with tactile discrimination issues will have difficulty telling the difference between objects based solely on how they feel.
Often children who are tactile defensive will also have discrimination issues. Because their brains register tactile input as a threat, they are too busy reacting to the sensation to engage in the discriminative process of finding out what the sensation means.
A child with tactile discrimination issues may:
- Be clumsy
- Grasp things too tightly or not tightly enough
- Be unable to identify common objects through touch
- Be unable to differentiate between light and firm touch
- Have poor motor skills
- Be afraid of the dark
- Be a messy dresser- doesn't notice if pants are inside out or twisted, if shirt is untucked etc.
Being a kid with tactile processing issues is no walk in the park and neither is being their parent as I'm sure you know! Having both a tactile defensive child and a tactile seeker, I can tell you that they each have their challenges.
I can also tell you that with the right intervention, those challenges will get easier. When my older son was a toddler we spent a year in occupational and physical therapy focusing on his tactile issues and it was a complete game-changer.
He's eight years old now and you would never in a million years guess that he was tactile defensive. Well, except when he gets hurt... he definitely still "over reacts" (I put in quotes because he's not really over reacting, he is reacting to the way it actually feels to him!) to minor cuts and scrapes BUT, he has no issues with clothes, no problems with bathing or teeth brushing, is a much better eater and while I'm not going to say he loves messy play, he definitely doesn't mind it.
Sensory Integration Therapy (OT-SI) is the best intervention for reducing tactile processing issues. If you have a child who is either over or under responsive to tactile input, finding an OT in your area who is "SI-certified" is the best first-step.
In the meantime, here are some things you can do at home to help your over responsive kiddo:
- Before mealtime, encourage oral-motor play - blowing bubbles, chewy toys, drinking through a straw
- Chewing on ice before meals may decrease sensitivity to food textures
- Remove tags from clothing; shop for seamless clothing
- Dry brushing (ask your child's OT)
- Use deep pressure- bear hugs, swaddles and baby wraps for infants, theratog
- Weighted blankets for sleeping
- As much proprioceptive input as possible- lots and lots of "heavy work" activities
- Provide opportunities for scaffolded tactile experiences
As a parent of a tactile defensive child, the most important thing to remember is that your child is NOT being "difficult" on purpose. Believe me when I say that I know how incredibly challenging it is to parent a child who is constantly over reacting to sensory/ tactile input. It can be absolulely crazy-making and there are moments where it really does seem like your child is just being difficult, but he isn't, I promise. No kid wants to experience life in a way that involves constantly being in a fight or flight response.
It can be especially hard for dads of boys who are over responsive to not be dismissive of their child's feelings. You want to avoid saying things like, "What are your crying about?" "That's not itchy!" "That didn't hurt!" "You're overreacting!" "Just put the damn socks on!"
It's hard to keep our cool when we have a kid who falls apart all the time and we're not going to be able to stay calm one hundred percent of the time, but if we can keep reminding ourselves that our child isn't doing it on purpose and that his brain truly is registering certain sensations as threats, it can help mitigate our frustration.
Remember: it's not a behavioral issue, it's a brain issue!
Tactile defensive kids need lots of opportunities for tactile play, but those opportunities need to be scaffolded. You don't want to just shove your kid's hands in a pile of shaving cream in the name of exposure. Instead, you want to start slow, model the experience yourself and build up to more intense tactile input.
For example, you can put shaving cream on a cookie sheet and model driving matchbox cars through it. If your child wants to join in, great! If not, you can continue modeling it and just let him watch. Next time maybe he'll join in.
Same goes for fingerpainting.
If you have a tactile seeker, no need to scaffold, your job is to provide as many opportunities for tactile play as possible!
Here are some ideas:
- Stock up on finger paints, play doh, kinetic sand, slime, putty- anything gooey, squishy or messy!
- Turn your water table into a sensory table by filling it with different textures- sand, mud, shaving cream, dried rice and beans etc.
- Try to do tactile activities that engage the entire body- swimming, ball pits, playing in sprinkler, slip n slide
- For story time, use touch and feel books
- Have a good old fashioned pillow fight
- Provide crunchy and chewy snacks
- Give lots of oral-motor input- chewy necklaces, straws, bubbles
- Create a "fidget box" with fidget spinners, stress balls, rubix cubes etc.
- Provide as many "heavy work" activities as possible!
Having a well-functioning tactile system is essential for healthy development. If your child's isn't functioning well, be assured that with consistent exposure to a wide variety of tactile experiences, it will improve.
Please leave any questions or comments below and don't hesitate to reach out if you need more support.