Tactile Sensitivity: What Parents Need to Know

Mom gently hugged her daughter.

  • Tactile sensitivity is the hyperarousal of feeling receptors in the skin.
  • Stimuli that are considered neutral to many people can cause feelings of pain or fear in those who are tactile-defensive.
  • Weighted blankets and vests can help children feel more centered and stable.
  • Taking your child’s lead will give them a sense of control and empowerment amongst their sensory processing issues.

“No, Mommy, please! Please don’t clip my toenails. They’re fine—I promise!”

I know they are not fine. We haven’t clipped them in weeks, but he fights me so hard every time I try to take his sock off. It’s hard getting the task completed.

The only time my son doesn’t have his feet covered is when he is in the bath. As soon as he is out of the bathtub, he puts his socks on and will wear socks until it’s time for his next bath. 

When I attempt to touch his feet in any way, he will pull back defensively as if I burned him with a match. When I finally convince him to remove his sock—something he must do on his own—just the softest touch of my hand will cause him to tremble. It is a painful activity for him. 

He also has trouble with many food textures. Just the look of some textures will cause him to gag. If they touch his tongue, he may vomit. 

My son has tactile sensitivities.

These sensitivities are symptoms of his ADHD, but as we will explore throughout this article, tactile sensitivity is a symptom of many diagnoses. Sometimes, however, it isn’t connected to any diagnosis at all. 

What Is Tactile Sensitivity?

Tactile sensitivity, also called tactile defensiveness, is a hyperarousal of the feeling receptors in an individual’s skin. As the body’s largest organ, the skin is constantly bombarded with information. 

Receptors decipher this information from touch, pain, temperature, exposure, and pressure.  When the brain is alerted of any potential concerns received by the tactile receptors, it will instantaneously decide how to handle the information. 

For example, your skin senses that the surface you just touched is too hot and sends that message to the brain. The brain instantaneously decides, “Drop the item!” and the pot you are holding crashes to the floor. Your brain saved you from a severe burn before realizing what happened. 

With tactile sensitivity, however, tactile perception is hyper-responsive. This means the information sent to the brain doesn’t match the situation. 

The brush of certain fabrics or a light touch on a sensitive area could signal the brain that there is pain or danger. This results in a panicked or defensive response, which seems unwarranted by others.

Baby playing with building blocks rubbing into his face.

What Causes Tactile Sensitivity?

Underlying diseases like diabetes, hypothyroidism, or toxins like chemotherapy or immunosuppressants can cause tactile sensitivity. However, when it occurs in children, it’s often a symptom of diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other sensory processing disorders.

It is unknown what causes tactile defensiveness explicitly. According to Griffin Occupational Therapy, Jean Ayres, the developer of the Sensory Integration Theory, “believed tactile hypersensitivity occurs because the brain pays too much attention to light touch and sensations from the skin.” The brain then interprets the sensations as a threat. 

For instance, a small strand of your hair brushes up against your face. The sensory system alerts your brain, making it aware of the “tickle.” Unconsciously, your hand reaches up and moves it away, eliminating the issue.

Someone with tactile sensitivities, however, a tickle of a hair could trigger the “fight-flight-freeze” response in their brain. Sending a message to the rest of the body that there was pain or danger.

“Sensations are food for the brain” – Jean Ayres

Tactile Hyposensitivity vs. Tactile Hypersensitivity

Just as hypersensitivity is an overreaction to sensory stimulation, hyposensitivity is an under-reaction to sensory stimulation. 

Children who are tactile hyposensitive are referred to as “sensory seeking.” They are unknowingly searching for tactile input due to an under responsive sensory system. This means they crave the sensation of touch.

Symptoms of tactile hyposensitivity include:

  • Touching the walls when walking down the hall.
  • Grabbing friends or strangers on the playground.
  • Rubbing objects on their face or arms.
  • Little respect for personal space.
  • Rolling around on hard surfaces.
  • Hugging or snuggling too rough.
  • Constantly seeking physical affection.
  • Tasting items that aren’t food.

Tactile hyposensitivity is often observed in individuals with sensory processing issues, such as those on the autism spectrum or those diagnosed with ADHD. It can also be a side effect of certain medications or injury. 

People who are hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli, such as food textures, are also hyposensitive in other areas, like lack of personal space awareness. This is due to sensory input being processed in different ways according to the location of the body and the brain’s receptivity to those areas.  

Sad girl hugging mom,

How to Tell if Your Child Has Tactile Sensitivity

Is brushing your child’s teeth a fight every night? Does he cringe any time you try to put him in certain pajamas or wrap him in a particular towel? Is he picky about the foods he eats and/or hesitant to try new flavors and textures? Does your child throw a tantrum anytime you try to clip his finger or toenails?

Your child may have tactile defensiveness or sensitivity if you answered yes to one or more of the previous questions. A telltale sign of tactile sensitivity is if your child responds negatively to tactile stimuli are otherwise considered pleasant or neutral. 

Common signs of tactile sensitivity are the avoidance of:

  • Certain textures in food.
  • Having hair combed.
  • Brushing teeth.
  • Swimming or baths.
  • Different clothing textures.
  • Short or long sleeves shirts.
  • Messy play—due to increased sensitivity on hands.
  • Physical affection—hugging, snuggling, kissing.
  • Walking around barefoot.
  • Loose-fitting shoes or clothes.

Tips for Parents to Help Their Child With Tactile Sensitivity

Children with tactile hypersensitivity can easily be misunderstood. When caregivers do not understand touch sensitivity, they may label their child as “difficult” or “picky.” They may also force her to do or eat something she tries to avoid, believing the exposure is the best for her.

Although meant with the best intentions, this often turns into a “tantrum” or “meltdown” caused by sensory overload. Sensory overload happens when the brain can’t process all the sensory information, and sends her into panic mode. 

There are many things caregivers can do to help their child with tactile defensiveness, and the first step is education.

Learn What Triggers Your Child

For parents looking to help their child with tactile defensiveness, nothing is more valuable than understanding your child’s triggers. To accomplish this, first, gather information about your child’s sensory thresholds. According to the American Psychological Association, sensory threshold is the lowest level of a stimulus that someone can detect.

Identifying the tactile input that triggers him can be challenging, especially if your child is nonverbal. Below are several questions you can ask yourself to narrow it down. 

  • What are some instances that cause an emotional meltdown?
  • Does he seem to be drawn to certain clothing or blankets?
  • When he is eating: What food does he refuse? Are there specific food textures he seems to avoid most?
  • Does he prefer sitting in places where others cannot easily touch him?
  • How often does he seek out physical affection? 

If you are looking for more insight into your child’s tactile defensiveness, an occupational therapist could provide more insight through the use of assessment and clinical questionnaires. 

Understanding what tactile sensations are the biggest struggle for your child will help you find appropriate tools for them to manage, improve, or cope with their sensitivities.

Little boy walking upstairs at home touching the wall.

Provide Tools to Help Cope

Once you are aware of your child’s sensitivities, it will be easier to provide the tools he’ll need to cope with the troublesome tactile stimulation.

Research shows that “heavy work”—physical activity that pushes or pulls against the body—is very effective in helping someone with sensory processing disorder feel stabilized. Things like jumping on a trampoline, pushing others on a swing, swimming, or rolling heavy toys across the grass are all examples of heavy work children can participate in to help center themselves.

The use of weighted products—like weighted vests of blankets—has also shown to be very effective in helping an individual manage sensory issues. The theory is that the firm pressure of weighted products helps calm the overactive sensory system, which allows for better focus and brings a feeling of calmness.

For some, calming games or activities can help, as well.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

The most important tip of all may be to follow your child’s lead. Don’t force him to engage in daily activities that are too overwhelming. Listen to his preferences, even if he isn’t using his words but body language instead. Allow him to wait until he is ready to do something or permit him to do activities his way.

For example, give up the fight about wearing jeans to school because the fabric is too uncomfortable for him and allow him to wear pants that he prefers. This will provide him with more comfort and, also, an opportunity to express his style. The result will be a less stimulated, more empowered child.

There will be times in which you have to challenge him to expose himself to stimuli he would otherwise prefer to avoid. It is essential to do this respectfully—such as by providing a warning before touching him or preparing him for any upcoming, stimulating activity.

FAQs

Can anxiety cause tactile issues in kids?

Yes. Heightened anxiety increases tactile sensitivity. When we are anxious, our bodies are in “fight-flight-freeze” mode, much like with sensory overload. Alternatively, sensory stimulation will be heightened when we are eager.

Can a child outgrow tactile sensitivity?

Yes, to some degree. Most people outgrow tactile sensitivities as they mature and learn how to cope with the offending sensory issues. They may never see total relief but typically, by adulthood, most people have little struggle with the sensitivities that plagued them when they were younger.

Is tactile sensitivity a symptom of Autism? 

Yes. According to Autism Magazine, research by Susan R. Leekman, PhD, et al. in 2007, revealed that over 90% of the autistic children studied had sensory processing issues such as tactile defensiveness.

Tactile Sensitivity: What Parents Need to Know


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