Many children suffer from tactile hypersensitivity. This is a little like having superpowers for your skin – but not in a good way. Before you assume your child is just being difficult, learn about tactile hypersensitivity and how it negatively impacts your child every day.

Does your child drive you crazy complaining about their socks? Do they whine about their clothing? Are their problems with their handwriting or behavior that don’t seem to make sense?

Tactile hypersensitivity is a difficult condition to live with. Feeling things too intensely all the time is exhausting. When you tune in to every single sensation your skin is experiencing right now, you’re unable to think of much else. When children and adults have tactile hypersensitivity, it can sometimes be very difficult to filter out the sensations and function in day‑to‑day life.

Some days Brian could not stand the feeling of his shirt collar against his neck. His new job required that he wear a shirt with a collar. It was difficult for him to override the unpleasant sensation so that he could learn his new job. After each shift, he was exhausted. Although he learned how to perform his many new job tasks, he never was able to relax sufficiently in order to enjoy his workmates.

Though Meredith was in 2nd grade, she still wasn’t holding her pencil correctly. She held it one‑third of the way up on the pencil, lightly secured by the tips of each finger and thumb. Her printing suffered. It was too large, misshapen, and too light to read. Did she have any issues with how her fingers or wrist worked? No. Meredith experienced tactile hypersensitivity and was unable to tolerate the feeling of the paper underneath her hand when printing with her hand resting on the paper and desktop surface. She held the pencil in a way that let her avoid touching the paper.

Now before you start thinking that Brian and Meredith need to just calm down, you need to understand the level of distaste and discomfort they experienced. For Brian, the discomfort of his collar would be similar to how you might feel if you knew there were multiple spiders crawling across your neck – and you were unable to brush them off. For Meredith, the level of distraction and distaste caused by the feel of the paper could be compared to resting your hand in a pile of worms or dragging your nails down a blackboard.

Brian began to purchase his shirts from a secondhand store because the well-washed shirts were softer. He learned how to meticulously pick the threads around the shirt labels to remove the scratchy label material. Meredith was provided with an oval shaped clear plastic sheet to slide between her hand and the paper. Both individuals were helped through these strategies.

Tactile hypersensitivity isn’t “I don’t like the way this feels”. It is intolerable and when forced to endure the sensation, individuals may act odd – they can’t think about anything else, their performance often suffers, and they experience extreme fatigue.

Hypersensitivity can occur when the brain processes touch in a mixed up and accentuated fashion. The brain perceives the sensation of touch in two distinct ways. One type of touch information enters the brain and results in a quick response, such as fight or flight response, to prevent a mishap. In a restaurant, you feel somebody brushing the back of your coat and quickly move without thinking just in case it is a waiter with a full tray. Your analysis of this situation and action was immediate.

The brain also processes the sense of touch at the level of the cortex. It is a more thoughtful, intelligent brain process and this experience is mixed with memory and intelligence. If the sense of touch is inviting, such as a pat on the hand when a child is doing homework, the brain experiences this as a positive and welcome form of emotional support.

In hypersensitivity, these pathways to the brain can become mixed up and heightened. Hypersensitivity can result in the strangest of ways!  Here are some strategies you can try to reduce your tactile hypersensitivity or that of a person you care for.

  • Meal preparation – Washing vegetables and breaking apart cauliflower and broccoli as well as other fruits and vegetables (that do not require a knife to cut) can be very helpful. Setting the table requires handling utensils, napkins, and serving plates and this can reduce hypersensitivity and stimulate good eye‑hand coordination.
  • Household chores – Encourage your child to perform chores, such as taking out the trash, assisting in bringing in grocery bags, as well as, folding towels. Putting away the groceries offers a variety of different weighs and textures into the hands and different wrist and hand positions for placing them in their correct location. Children should also be encouraged to maintain their bedroom in an orderly fashion using containers with a variety of fasteners in order to open and close using different fine motor and gross motor hand grips in order to store small toys and items.
  • Use of playground equipment – Pressure applied through the small joints and muscles of the hand in order to secure playground equipment heightens the brain’s awareness of the hands and fingers. The use of playground equipment and sports equipment requires a strong grasp and this form of pressure can be beneficial to enhance the brain‑hand connection.
  • Eating utensils – The correct use of eating utensils is essential for hand development. When utilizing an eating utensil, the fingers maintain a stable and co‑contracted position while the wrist allows movement of the utensil. Teach your children the correct use of a fork and knife and require them to cut their pancakes and waffles utilizing a knife edge versus the edge of their fork.
  • Finger dexterity – Activities that promote finger dexterity are always of great benefit. Activities such as playing an instrument, computer keyboarding (by touch only and not relying on the vision), baking, safe carpentry workshop activities, card games, and sports grip strengthening equipment are all of benefit.
  • Washing hands – This includes looking at the hands, sequencing the activity, and performing isolated finger actions to soak, rinse off, and dry each finger. In addition, the tactile input offered by the water and the toweling can accentuate the brain’s connection to the small joints and muscles of the hand.
  • Alternative pencil sizes – Small, golf‑sized pencils can be helpful as the grasp required to secure these small pencils will encourage a mature fine motor pinch. Pencil grippers are excellent for students who lack finger strength and a variety of different pencil grippers should be offered and changed in order to stimulate hand function.
  • Pouring from a jug – Pouring water from a jug to water plants or pouring juice from a jug into a juice glass is an excellent opportunity to teach the complex actions of the wrist rotation while the fingers are maintained in a strong grip.
  • The sense of touch – Encourage children to explore a variety of materials with their hands, including paper mache, finger painting, interacting with dirt for gardening, etc.

Weight bearing through the hand heightens the brain’s understanding of the hand. That’s why weight-bearing improves the coordination of fine motor control necessary for an age-appropriate grasp of a tool or writing utensil. Students who have difficulty using a writing utensil, eating utensil or toothbrush frequently benefit from activities that accentuate weight bearing through the hand.

A fun home exercise program can include crawling races, wheelbarrow relays*, wall pushups, floor push-ups or chair press-ups. Exercises to encourage finger mobility should be encouraged, such as using a keyboard, playing the recorder and doing jigsaw puzzles. This will lead to an overall improvement in coordination on the playground and during desktop work in the classroom.

Holding a pencil properly requires a very discriminative sense of touch. This can be developed by trying to feel small objects hidden in a shoebox filled with either uncooked kidney beans, rice or macaroni. Just sliding the hands through the rice for several minutes can be very helpful in improving the brain’s awareness of sensations in the hands and fingers. Small toys or small marbles in the rice box challenges the child to find the missing items without using their eyes but solely rely on feeling and touch.

It isn’t only the fingers that are involved in the sense of touch. The entire surface of the skin is involved. The ability of the skin to detect temperature, pressure, shape, and texture is directly correlated to brain functioning. Any activities that help the brain to better receive these messages from the skin are of benefit.

In addition to the strategies involving the fingers outlined above, these activities can be of benefit to other areas of the skin.

  • Brushing the skin utilizing a standard scrub brush is an easy classroom-friendly activity. Many researchers have outlined the positive effects of a brushing program in promoting calming of the nervous system. The program is also designed to promote an optimal level of alertness for ideal learning readiness. When utilizing a dry scrub brush on the forearms and hands, imaging brushing your brain awake. Get a special brush designed for this purpose HERE.
  • Experiment with different textures of cloth rubbed directly on the skin. Go slowly here and let the child grow in tolerance. Remember, the level of distaste is extreme.
  • Have the child close their eyes and then place different items on their skin and/or in their hands. Choose items of different size, temperature, and texture. It is okay to show the child the items beforehand, so their brain can connect what they saw to what they now feel. This will also reassure them that there is nothing gross or scary that will touch them. You can include food items such as cold pasta, fruit and dry cereal. Favorite toys, including soft stuffed animals, that they explore with their fingers (eyes closed still) and try to identify by touch alone.

Approaching your child’s tactile hypersensitivity with the understanding of how difficult it is for them can make a big difference. Help your child implement the strategies but don’t push them too far too quickly. Allow time for their hypersensitivity to lessen. Remember, tactile hypersensitivity is in their brain and nervous system so though changes can occur, they don’t happen overnight.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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