Sensory Processing Disorder: Tactile Dysfunction

Tactile dysfunction is incredibly frustrating for the person experiencing the problem.  It can come in the form of over sensitivity, under sensitivity or poor perception and discrimination.

Tactile Defensiveness:

Tactile Dysfunction www.autismmom.netImagine putting on your clothes and they scratch like an old wool sweater on your bare skin.  You have to wear the clothes, because your parents say so.  You go to school and people bumping into you feels like someone is attacking you.  At school you refuse to finger paint because the thought of the paint running down your fingers, under your nails and possibly onto your shirt strikes fear into your heart.  When you get home and you’re eating snack, a bit of banana gets on your finger and your napkin is too dirty to wipe it off immediately.  The panic starts to rise because mom is too busy to get a napkin for you.   When you go to bed falling asleep is difficult because all you can think about is how scratchy the sheets are. You toss and turn because the discomfort is so frustrating and irritating.

The description above is an example of what it might be like living with tactile defensiveness.  Tactile defensiveness might come across as OCD but it is actually a problem with how the brain processes tactile information.

Tactile Hyposensitivity:

A child dealing with tactile hyposensitivity is likely more aggressive and rough and tumble than the average kid.  This child is probably playing rough without regard to how he or she might be hurting other children or animals.  They might get bruised up and not seem to care. You might be repeating the phrase, “Stop touching that,” because they must touch every object at the store.  This is the kid who loves to get messy and never seems to notice that they are dirty.

A child that is hypersensitive to tactile input seeks dirty, messy and rough play to in order to seek out tactile sensations.  The child’s brain seeks out this type of input in order to process what the sensations feel like.  Seeking this input helps him or her make sense of what it is perceiving.

Poor Tactile Perception and Discrimination:

Frustrations with buttoning or zipping clothes are common among children with poor tactile perception and discrimination.  They may struggle to figure out how hot, cold, big or small something is just by using touch.

This child’s sense of touch may seem underdeveloped and confused.  Because our own tactile sensation is well developed it might seem strange when a child is unable to use it to it’s full extent. This child’s system is confused and isn’t processing sensory input correctly.

Activities You Can Do:

If you suspect that your child has Sensory Processing Disorder, you should find an occupational therapist qualified to evaluate your child.  The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation has a link on their site that can connect you to an occupational therapist in your area: 

While I am not an occupational therapist, I am a mom of a child with SPD.  The following is a list of activities we have had fun doing with our son.

  • Rice/noodle/bean bin:  We have a plastic container filled with our stale rice, beans and noodles.  We take this bin out on the back lawn (and put it on top of blanket to catch the stragglers that fall on the ground), fill it with cars, trucks, plastic people and plastic cups and go to town playing.  Not only does this offer children a chance to seek sensory input in an appropriate way, it also builds a positive relationship and interaction between the adult and child.
  • Playing with messy household stuff:  We have a couple of those disposable cookie sheets that we take outside and make a mess in them.  We’ve taken shaving cream, baby powder, yogurt, pudding, and corn starch (not at the same time!), dumped it in the cookie sheets, and played in it using trucks (for the child with tactile  defensiveness) or just with our hands.  Great messy fun that can be scaled up or down depending on your child’s needs.
  • What’s in the bag?  Find some “mystery” objects around the house and put them in paper bags.  Ask your child to reach in and feel what the object is.  Without looking, guess what the object is.
  • Baking:  Have your child help you with baking.  Bread is a wonderful messy item to make.  Kneading, getting dough on your hands while helping and making something delicious.
  • Play Doh:  You can either make your own or buy some at the store.  Get cookie cutters, a rolling pin or buy a Play-doh kit and play!
  • Silly Putty, Theraputty, Moonsand, and other squishy substances:  These pre-made squishy substances are fun for everyone to play with.  You can also find recipes for gack and other home-made squishy substances online.  If you child struggles to touch these fun products, you can use cookie cutters, plastic cups or include toys.
  • Brushes of every kind:  We have rough sponges, basting brushes, paint brushes and probably other brushes for our son to press against his skin to get tactile input. Your child may or may not like this sort of pressure.  Check what they like before you buy too many of them.
  • Massagers:  Try using massagers or even an electric tooth brush as a massager.  Some kids enjoy this deep pressure and input.  Others are bothered by it.  Go with your child’s individual likes and needs.

Even if you child doesn’t have SPD, these activities are fun and exciting.