Can’t Touch This…

Full disclosure: I hate hate HATE the feel of certain textures.

I hate them so much so that I will find ways to avoid touching them. I will never play in mud. I refuse to clean out a pumpkin. The thought of kneading dough or mixing raw meat with my hands freaks me out. I will use a fork and knife to eat BBQ ribs or chicken wings because the feel of the sauces of my fingers genuinely stresses me out. 

As odd as this is, I’m not the only one. We may know kids that can’t stand the tags on shirts, the feel of sand on their hands, or when paint or glue get on their skin. Why? It’s an overresponsive tactile system. 

What is the tactile system? 

The tactile system is the sense of touch. Touch helps kids understand their physical environment in relation to their own bodies. Touch receptors are located on and under the skin throughout the body, collecting external data from its surroundings, such as: texture, pressure, temperature, and pain. 

These inputs lay the foundation for other learned skills, such as: emotional security, body awareness, motor planning, visual discrimination, language, and social skills.

The tactile system is comprised of two parts: 

  1. Protection – A defense system to alert us if we are in danger.
    Has anything ever “made your hairs stand on end”?  Responding to light touch, protection receptors are found mainly on our head, face, and genitals. Sometimes a touch is welcomed, like a mom’s stroke on her baby’s face. Other times it is unwanted, like a bug crawling on our skin. As we engage with our environment, we learn to differentiate and desensitize daily tactile inputs from those that are annoying or scary. 
  1. Discrimination – This system allows us to determine the texture and physical characteristics of what we interact with.
    Is the object smooth or rough? Soft or hard? Wet or dry, hot or cold? Discrimination receptors are found in the palms and soles or the hands and feet, the fingers, and the mouth and tongue.  As we engage with objects within our surroundings, we internally build a database of “feels” and can eventually determine items by touch or sight.

What happens when the system is overresponsive? 

When the tactile system has either faced trauma or had limited exposure to things, we will fear the idea of being touched by (or anticipate touching) certain items. Kids cannot control their reaction to bad or unfamiliar “touches”.

An example would be when someone purposely put my hand in Ranch Dressing as a joke and I wanted to simultaneously cry and scream. My friends thought I was overreacting. They didn’t know that my tactile system read this as a threat and sent me to a flight-fight response. 

The fascinating thing about people with overresponsive systems is that we do like being touched, but we want it on our terms. We enjoy hugs and massages; we will seek certain textures that make us feel safe like a warm thick blanket. These are usually deep pressure touches which have a calming effect to the system, allowing the body to feel secure. 

Is there such a thing as an under-responsive system? 

Yes. Some children do not even realize that they have been touched. Things that might elicit a response, such as scraping an elbow, would have little effect on them. 

There are also children who crave touch. This means that a child’s tactile system is not getting enough input to calm their curiosity and must keep touching until it is satisfied. These kids are the type that seek messy play. They NEED to touch everything they see, even if it disturbs other’s personal boundaries or if items are off-limits, like a lit candle. These children can sometimes be initially labeled as “impulsive…bad…they don’t listen”, which isn’t the case. 

How can I identify an under- or overresponsive tactile issue?

If they have a tactile system that is not operating correctly, it can affect how they interact and participate within their home, school, and community.

  • The child may be afraid to move within their surroundings due to limited body and spatial awareness, hindering their ability to motor plan. They would be the ones always standing up against the wall, or nearest to the exit.
  • They may only rely on visuals to identify objects. For example, a child would need to empty entire contents of a bag to find a certain object, instead of feeling around for it.
  • They may have difficulties understanding language due to limited interaction with objects. They may not understand words like smooth, squishy, soft, etc.
  • They may have difficulties in school if touch is distracting. The child may fear being touched in line or during recess. An under-responsive tactile system may look like a child who can’t help touching everything.
  • They may have difficulties developing strong attachments to people or having empathy due to limited touch or processing of touch. The child doesn’t like being hugged or doesn’t appreciate comforting actions.

How can I help my child?

  • Expose them to everything – Take your child on daily walks or to the playground. Allow them to pick up items or touch things along the way. Talk to them about it: What is that? What does it feel like? 
    If they are not ready to physically explore their world through touch just yet, bring them outside to just feel the wind or the sun or even the cold.
  • Give them time and opportunities – If your child is like me, allow them to process touch on their own time. Let them be in control of it. If you are cooking, have the ingredients out. If they are curious, ask if they’d like to help. Give them utensils to mix with instead of their hands. And if something gets on their skin, tell them calmly, “It’s okay. We’ll rinse it off.” 
  • Allow for consent – The worst thing to do to a child who has touch issues is to bombard them with unwanted or unexpected touch. Do not force physical contact if your child does not want it. You can always change the touch from “Hug grandma” to “Can you high-five/hand shake/fist bump grandma?” 
    If an unexpected touch occurs, teach your child to calm by rubbing the affected skin with their hands as though there was lotion on it. This provides deep pressure to their system and should calm them down. 
  • Water play – If your child does not like messes, playing with water may help. You can use a water table, or just fill up buckets or small bins with water. You can adjust the temperature from cold to warm, add different toys to the water, or build up to adding bubbles or shaving cream or water paint. If they think it’s messy, reassure them by saying, “It’s okay, we can wash it off.” 
    Eventually, you can add water to other substances like sand or rice or even dirt, once they are ready to.
  • Let them be messy – This is a hard one for some parents because of the clean up…and the laundry. Oh, the laundry…. But this one is important. The tactile system needs to be fed by the child exploring their surroundings and the objects in it. So, if it’s raining outside, let them experience it for a moment. Let them help you make brownies or baked goods. If they accidentally spill it, have them clean it up. Let them finger paint and put it on their face. Let them splash in mud, catch earthworms, or even touch something sticky. Then, you can be ready with the sanitizer wipes.
  • Let them be – Sometimes having a tactile issue is just part of that person for one reason or another. It doesn’t mean they cannot thrive or adjust. Provide them with utensils and a lot of wet wipes when eating BBQ. Let them poke foreign objects with a stick instead of a whole hand. Give them gloves if they must touch something “gross” or “icky.” They will figure it out. Just let them know that it is okay, and everything can be washed off.

All in all, our sense of touch is important to understanding the world around us. It is crucial to provide as many opportunities for our children to explore without force or fear. And if they do end up with a weird quirk, such as myself, know that it is not the end of the world. They just need a bit more understanding, patience, and guidance. 

Can't Touch This... Understanding the Tactile Response System

Barker, Laura, MA, OTR. Sensory Processing: Behavior, Memory and Learning. Live lecture. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Atlanta GA. 2012.

Kranowitz, Carol Stock, MA. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder.  

Garland, Teresa. MOT, OTR/L. Regulating Children with Autism and/or Sensory Disorders: Cutting-Edge Interventions to Satisfy Sensory Cravings and Sensitivities. Webinar. 2016. 

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