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Tactile sensory system




¨       We get tactile information through sensory receptors located in the skin.

¨       The tactile system provides us with information about touch sensations: pressure, vibration, movement, temperature and pain.

¨       The tactile sense is made up of two components: the protective (or defensive) system and the discriminative system.


Why is the processing of tactile information important?

¨       The tactile sense or sense of touch is a huge sensory system that gives us information needed for visual perception, motor planning, body awareness, academic learning social skills and emotional security.

¨       The function of the protective / defensive system is to alert us to potentially harmful stimuli. We need it for survival. The receptors for this system are in the skin, particularly the hairy skin on the head and genitals. Light touch is the stimulus that causes the receptors to respond.

¨       The function of the discriminative system is to tell us what we are touching / where on our bodies it is touching us, and the properties of that touch, i.e. size, shape, texture, temperature and whether the touch is light or deep. The receptors for this system are found in the skin, especially of the hands and fingers, soles of the feet and the mouth and tongue.

¨       As an infant develops into childhood, the discriminative system suppresses the protective / defensive system, although not completely. Both systems work together to enable us to interpret tactile information throughout our lives.

¨       Tactile dysfunction is the inefficient processing in the central nervous system of the sensations perceived through the skin.


Functional Implications:

Over-responsive to touch: Tactile Defensiveness  /Hypersensitivity:

¨       Child has a tendency to react negatively and emotionally to unexpected, light touch sensations

¨       May dislike having hair washed and brushed and nails cut

¨       May display hostility / or withdraw from situations requiring lots of tactile input: i.e. getting dressed, in the playground

¨       Overreaction to physically painful experiences: make a “big deal” about a minor scrape

¨       Fuss about clothing, such as stiff new clothes, shirt collars, elasticated waists, hats and scarves. May prefer short sleeves and shorts, even in winter to avoid the sensation of clothes rubbing on the skin / OR prefer long sleeves even in summer to avoid having skin exposed

¨       Avoidance of messy play activities i.e. finger painting, clay, sand and water play / fastidious about washing every bit of dirt from hands

¨       Excessive ticklishness / avoidance of kisses preferring hugs

¨       Seeks out deep pressure sensations which are easier to process and can be calming and organising

Under-responsive to touch: Hyposensitivity: (i.e. The child who is not processing enough movement information)

¨       Craves extra stimulation and is constantly touching objects and people

¨       May show no reaction to pain from scrapes, bruises, cuts or injections

¨       May be unaware of messiness around the mouth / nose: may not notice a runny nose

¨       May hurt other children or pets during play, seemingly without remorse but actually not understanding the pain that others feel

¨       May drop things without realising

Poor tactile discrimination (i.e. The child’s brain does not register information about how things feel)

¨       Difficulties using tactile sense for complicated purposes like learning at school

¨       Child may be unable to identify which body parts have been touched without looking

¨       May be afraid of the dark

¨       May be a messy dresser i.e. twisted waistbands, shoes untied etc.

¨       May be a messy eater

¨       Difficulties with tool use: i.e. cutlery, scissors, pencils, paintbrush etc.

¨       May avoid initiating tactile experiences i.e. picking up tools / toys

N.B Remember: your child may be both HYPERSENSITIVE and HYPOSENSITIVE, i.e. s/he may be extremely sensitive to light touch, moving away from a light tap on the shoulder, but indifferent to the deep pain of an injection.

Strategies to Help Improve the processing of Tactile information:

1.     Where possible, avoid surprising your child with unexpected light touch sensations i.e. brushing past them, approaching from behind and touching them.

2.     At school, make sure that your child is not sitting at the end of a the desk next to the main walk way in the classroom, so as to reduce the likelihood of unexpected light touch.

3.     Provide opportunities for your child to experience deep pressure sensations as these help to suppress sensitivity to light touch sensations. Deep pressure can be provided by a bear hug, being rolled up and squashed in a duvet, through rough and tumble play, massage, press-ups etc. Any activity that provides pressure to the joints can be very calming and may help prepare your child for a difficult light touch activity, i.e. hair washing / tooth brushing.

4.     Use sheets on the bed that can be tucked in tightly to make your child feel secure. Some children feel safer sleeping on their beds in a sleeping bag

5.     Brushing with a surgical brush (ask your Occupational Therapist for advice on this technique) can help to reduce your child’s sensitivity.


Activities to reduce Tactile Defensiveness:

  • When directing a movement – use firm touch.  Firm pressure can help reduce tone, calm and organise a child’s movements.
  • Avoid light brushing or intermittent light touches.
  • Give verbal cues to prepare a child.
  • Sometimes activities that emphasise joint compression (e.g.. jumping, dangling, pushing, pulling, weight bearing) may help.  Heavy muscle work often reduces sensory defensiveness.
  • Use a variety of texture experiences on the skin.  Start dry and progress – wet materials, e.g. sand, rice, pasta, packaging foam.
  • Small toys hidden in a bucket full of paper / sawdust / material for the child to find.
  • Activities that involve all over body pressure; pretend the child is being painted with a paint roller or get him/her to roll him/herself up in a rug, sheet, etc.
  • Brushes and scourers (not too rough) are useful to have in and out of the bath e.g. nailbrushes, paint, scrubbing and cosmetic brushes.
  • Playdoh – for rolling, patting, poking and modelling.
  • Outdoor play – encourage swinging on a tyre or swing – try on tummy pushing with legs.
  • Play catch and throw with weighted materials, e.g. Beanbags, heavy padded balls.
  • Wet activities – body painting
  • hand lotion / shaving foam on mirror or tray.  Also include cleaning as part of activity
  • When completing puzzles and activities indoors try getting your child to work on their tummies with elbow support
  • Cooking / baking activities involving handling ingredients and experiencing different textures
  • Gardening activities: planting / watering seeds: handling soil etc.
  • Self care activities: Hand washing – Try using liquid soap and a nailbrush.
  • Bath times – Encourage use of different textured bath mitts to wash parts of body.  Afterwards, firmly rub down with a thick terry towel.
  • Encourage the child to rub hands and body with lotion.


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