Little girl with tactile defensiveness wearing a red cape pretending to fly like a superhero.

If you are familiar with tactile sensitivities or defensiveness, you know that it can impact every aspect of someone’s life, primarily in children. If you do not struggle with sensory issues, you may not be aware of the constant sensory processing that occurs with every little thing that happens around us. Our brains constantly use processing information to help us see, hear, touch, taste, and feel the world around us. There is also a lot of sensory information that our brains might filter out and tell us not to worry about, such as background noises, particular tastes, breezes, or the feel of our clothing. However, this is not always the case for children with sensory sensitivities or tactile defensiveness.

In today’s blog, we will discuss what tactile symptoms look like and share some tips on managing sensitivities in your child.

What is Tactile Defensiveness?

Often referred to as tactile or touch sensitivity, tactile defensiveness (TD) is a term used to describe an over responsiveness to tactile input. Essentially, it refers to an adverse reaction someone may experience with touch. Although it is common for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to experience sensory issues such as tactile sensitivity, it can be found in any child who has sensory difficulties.

As we mentioned before, our brain filters out a lot of non-threatening sensory information such as background noise, touch, and how our clothes feel on our skin. When our brains filter this information out, we usually can move on unbothered, without giving it a second thought. However, if an individual has TD, there is no filter. These “non-threatening sensations” become a much more serious issue, causing feelings of stress and anxiety that can impede day-to-day activities.

These feelings can be so overwhelming because the brain is basically telling your body to go into fight or flight mode to protect itself from these threatening sensations.

Tactile sensitivities can look different for every individual and can be more evident in some cases, but here are some examples of the most common signs:

  • Does not like to be touched
  • Avoids crowds
  • Avoids loud sounds
  • Dislikes having fingernails cut
  • Can become anxious when putting on certain clothes (or sometimes refuses to put on clothes at all)
  • Quickly overwhelmed
  • Issues with texture (clothes, food, etc.)
  • May struggle with daily routines such as brushing teeth or even bathing (anything requiring tactile input)
  • Dislikes wearing pants or restrictive clothing around the legs
  • Dislikes hair cuts
  • Dislike seams in clothing
  • Excessively ticklish

Is Tactile Defensiveness Related To Autism?

If you have been with the ASD community for a while, then you may be aware of sensory processing issues or sensory sensitivities in those with autism. Although it is not something that every child with autism experiences, more than half of those diagnosed with ASD also struggle with sensory processing issues. As we mentioned before, a child who shows tactile defensiveness does not necessarily have autism; similarly, someone with autism may not have tactile sensitivities.

It is also important to note that tactile defensiveness is not the only reaction children with ASD or other sensory issues may have. Some children experience sensory avoidant or sensory-seeking behaviors due to new environments or external stimuli. This is why kids who struggle with these sensitivities are more likely to stay within their comfort zone by wearing the same set of clothes and eating the same foods that don’t trigger stressful reactions.

How To Help Your Child Manage TD

As a parent, the first step to helping your child manage tactile sensitivities is to identify the behaviors and what might be causing or triggering them. Once triggers have been identified, there are various ways that parents can help their children not feel stressed out in situations that would typically trigger TD. While these tips are an excellent place to start, you may need to tweak some of them to fit your child’s needs.

  • Avoid Unexpected Touch / Prepare Your Child
    Even the slightest brush against your child’s skin can put them on high alert.
    When fingers gently brush against your child’s skin or your child is touched unexpectedly, this is like setting off an emergency alarm system in your child’s nervous system. By mentally preparing them for situations that may be uncomfortable for them, you can help them to better handle the stress.
  • Sensory Exercises
    Sometimes the best way to get your child “used” to these sensations is to engage in sensory exercises that get them used to various textures in a controlled setting, such as foods and clothes or even dietary interventions. There are plenty of activities or exercises online, but some include doing art, building things with foam blocks, and playing with playdough or theraputty.
  • Deep Touch Pressure
    Deep touch pressure has been successful in creating both short-term and long-term calming effects on a child’s nervous system. In the short-term, deep touch pressure lets the body know that there isn’t a threat and that it’s okay to exit fight or flight mode. If you have ever heard of someone giving a child a tight hug during a tantrum or meltdown, they are essentially using the deep touch pressure treatment to help calm them down. Compression clothing, weighted blankets or even pillow squishing are all examples of deep touch pressure.

Tactile defensiveness is not an easy thing to manage, but it is possible with proper tools and techniques. At Simple Spectrum, we know that each day can present a new set of challenges for parents of children with autism, ADHD, or other sensory processing issues such as tactile defensiveness. Although there is not always an instruction manual for raising children, there are plenty of resources to help manage various behaviors.