Treating tactile defensiveness will vastly improve a child's ability to learn, explore, play, and socialize. A tactile defensive child is in survival mode much of the time when he should be feeling at home and happy in his body and with the world.
What is tactile defensiveness?
A few of the classic signs are complaints about clothing, especially tags, elastic waistbands, and the seams in socks, refusing to touch certain textures like lotion, glue, or liquid soap, lashing out when others are too close, wiping off kisses, tantrums over being groomed, poor ability to transition between activities, being controlling or rigid in personality, not being very physically affectionate (or insisting on being hugged as tightly as possible), habitually fisting the hands, and refusing to walk barefoot and/or preferring to walk on tiptoes.
Tactile defensive skin is overly sensitive and is wired to a part of the brain that alerts the system to danger. It has little ability to filter out unimportant sensations, like the feel of clothing, and can't easily distinguish between what is neutral and what is a threat. This puts the child on high alert in situations where there is no reason for it.
Tactile defensive children generally don't do well with change, especially with sudden, unexpected deviations from daily routine. They have a higher than normal need to control what is happening around them and tend not to be very mentally or emotionally flexible. The reason for this is because so much of what comes their way during a typical day is interpreted by their nervous systems as threatening, noxious, and painful. They have to expend an enormous amount of energy coping with unpleasant perceptions and sensations that a normally functioning nervous system would not even register, so they don't have a whole lot of mental energy left to be able to roll with the punches. Transitions are especially difficult for them, more so if the child is not expecting one. They don’t adapt to novelty well, and can't easily shift gears. A child who habitually responds to life with a resounding "NO!" is struggling with sensory defensiveness.
How Is Tactile Sensitivity Treated?
The good news is that as soon as a child is evaluated with sensory processing difficulties, they can receive help from an occupational therapist. A plan for tactile desensitization will be drawn up and therapy sessions with the OT will be scheduled. Parents will be shown techniques that may include a “sensory diet” or the use of a “sensory box or board” they can use at home to help their overly sensitive child. With time and treatment, the amount of tactile stimulation your child can tolerate will increase.
Occupational therapy with a sensory integration approach typically takes place in a sensory-rich environment at the office of a therapist. During OT sessions, the therapist guides the child through fun activities that are designed so the child is constantly challenged. The activities are usually “framed for success” so the child feels happy and proud of his accomplishments.
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