In this final part of my series on sensory processing disorder, I will be focusing on sensitivity to touch. This is also known as tactile defensiveness. Every day we are exposed to different textures and temperatures. Problems with the way that the brain processes touch can cause an autistic child to become overwhelmed.
Sense of Touch: Overview
Our sense of touch is controlled by our somatosensory system. This is a network of nerve endings and receptors in our skin. We experience a variety of sensations through touch, including temperature, pressure, texture, vibration and pain.
Because autistic children can experience sensitivity to touch, they may exhibit sensory seeking or avoidant behaviours to compensate.
Sensory Avoiding Behaviours: Tactile
An autistic child may not like to be touched or hugged. It may feel physically unpleasant for them. This may be hard for parents to cope with, as it is natural to want to hug your child.
They may also have an extreme reaction to pain. A slight bruise or cut could cause a huge meltdown that seems out of proportion to the injury itself.
Oversensitivity to fabrics can cause huge problems in everyday life, especially if the child is expected to wear certain clothing for school. Labels and hems can feel itchy and uncomfortable against the skin. A child may also feel hot and refuse to wear a jumper or coat even in cold weather. Some children prefer to wear minimal clothing at home.
Sensory Seeking Tactile Behaviours
Sensory seekers love the feel of different textures on the skin. Their sense of touch can be a powerful learning tool, as they enjoy being “hands on” in their work and play. Parents and caregivers can create a sensory bin for the child to explore. This could be a simple box containing things like rice, sand, dry pasta shapes or play dough for messy play.
Autistic children often enjoy the sense of deep pressure, which can be very calming. This can be achieved using special equipment like weighted blankets. A weighted blanket gives the sensation of being hugged and held. This can help a child to relax and sleep at night.
A sensory seeker may have a high pain threshold and might not even notice that they are injured. It is important that caregivers help them to understand the signs of an injury so that they can seek medical help if needed.
Helping Children with Sensitivity to Touch
There are many ways to offer help to a child with tactile defensive behaviour. A sensory seeking child may enjoy having a “fidget toy” to carry with them when they go out. This will satisfy their need for tactile stimulation and potentially prevent meltdowns.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, special equipment like weighted blankets and sensory toys can be useful tools for autistic children. Likewise there are also specialist clothing stores that sell “sensory friendly” clothes. This could include school uniform made from soft fabric, or clothing without scratchy hems. Parents can also remove any scratchy labels from clothing to make it comfortable. Autistic children may also like soft towels or bedding.
When it comes to hugs or displays of affection, parents need to discuss boundaries with their child. Maybe they could agree on an expression of affection that the child feels happy with. Parents can also warn school staff, friends and family members that the child has sensitivity to touch. It is also important to help the child if they are in a situation where they need to be touched. For example if they need to go to the doctor, parents could explain what will happen before they go.
I hope you have enjoyed my series on sensory processing disorder. If you haven’t read the other articles in the series, please feel free to explore my posts on visual, hearing, taste and smell sensitivity.