As we continue the exploration of sensory processing during OT month, we dive into the specifics of Tactile sensory processing. In case you missed the first part of this series, be sure to read up on What is Sensory Processing?
What is Tactile Processing?
Tactile processing is often referred to as your sense of touch. It is the way your body perceives and responds to input on the outermost system of your body: your skin and the nerves and muscles underneath. Response to vibration, temperature, pain, and pressure are all involved in this complex system. A child might be either over-responsive or under-responsive to tactile sensory input, though sometimes can display signs of both. For this reason, tactile processing does not just refer to what your child is actually touching with their hands, but also how they might react to even the thought of interacting with tactile input.
Children who are over-responsive to tactile touch may show signs like avoiding messy play, struggling wearing socks or shoes, have difficulty with hair washing. They might also disliking giving or receiving hugs, as well as tolerating holding hands during transitions. Over-responsiveness means that your child has a heightened response to tactile input, and might respond negatively, or even emotionally, to being touched or the thought of being touched.
When a child is under-responsive, they may seek out tactile input in a variety of ways. You may notice them touching others or objects frequently. They might struggling with grading force (how much or little pressure to use) when grabbing objects, hugging or petting animals. Under-responsive kiddos might not notice messiness on their face or body.
There are a number of strategies you may consider trying with your child to help their body work toward a more typical response to tactile input. It’s important to develop your toolbox of strategies, because what works for them one day, might not work the next. Having options that you can present to your child when they are feeling over or under stimulated and allowing them to choose their strategies teaches them to be independent with their coping mechanisms. Which in turn, helps you, as a parent or caregiver, better understand their needs and preferences.
Strategies for Over-responsive
Use deep touch before light touch (i.e. pressure squeezes on the scalp before hair brushing, using more pressure during bathing or applying lotions)
Encourage exploration of different textures while creating a supportive environment – interacting with messy textures with tools like Q-tips if not yet tolerated on hands
Keeping a wet towel available during meals or messy play and allowing children to clean their hands as needed
Wilbarger protocol with joint compressions
Removing tags from clothing and choosing softer textures for fabrics on clothing/blankets/towels
Model and encourage deep breathing to keep the body in a more calm state
Strategies for Under-responsive
Incorporate, organized, heavy work and sensory motor based activities throughout the day (climbing, jumping, swinging, running)
Weight bearing exercises such as animal crawls, yoga, or rolling over a therapy ball
Hug with deep pressure or offer weighted blankets/lap pads
Handheld fidgets may support participation in seated activities
Compression clothing for a consistent tight squeeze
It is important to note that your child may exhibit signs of both over and under-responsiveness to any of their senses. Occupational therapists look for trends and patterns of behavior that are then used to help categorize your child’s sensory responses more appropriately. This allows OT’s to establish a treatment plan and create a set of recommendations that will work best for your child’s sensory difficulties.