Learn more about “Tactile Defensiveness” or “Tactile Hypersensitivity” and how to support kids who struggle with tactile sensory experiences.
Our sense of touch is one of the first sensory systems to develop when a child is growing in utero. And research shows that normal touch experiences between parents/caregivers and babies is extremely important for social, behavioral, motor, and cognitive development.
Appropriate tactile and proprioceptive responses are crucial for the achievement of developmental milestones like walking, grasping, and social/communication skills.
Click here to learn more about the tactile system.
What is tactile defensiveness or tactile hypersensitivity?
When we say that a child is demonstrating tactile defensiveness (or tactile hypersensitivity), it means that we see the child responding to touch experiences in a more extreme way than other children. Their awareness of and reactions to tactile stimuli are heightened.
All of us have preferences for and aversions to different types of sensory input, but when we refer to defensiveness or hypersensitivity, it usually means that a child’s sensory responses are so extreme that they are interfering with their ability to participate in regular healthy daily activities and routines.
Red flags for tactile defensiveness
Strong aversions to certain textures (clothing, foods, play items)
Avoiding or extreme responses to certain textures (avoidance, refusal, crying, screaming)
Gagging when looking at or touching certain textures
Avoiding or extreme responses to physical touch (hugs, hand holding)
Toe walking (*this can be attributed to several other causes as well)
Avoiding or extreme responses to messy play
Avoiding or extreme responses to grooming and hygiene experiences (brushing teeth, washing hands, haircuts, cutting fingernails)
Describing touch experiences as being painful
Tips and strategies for tactile defensiveness
Sometimes, the touch experiences that are most challenging for kids with tactile defensiveness are unavoidable: running through the rain to get to the car so you won’t be late for school, taking a bath, cutting fingernails.
And sometimes, teachers/therapists/parents want to spend time working with a child to increase their tolerance of touch experiences and help create more healthy responses to tactile stimuli.
In these cases, we can use certain preparatory techniques that can support the child’s ability to tolerate tactile stimuli.
1 || Slow, Gradual Exposure and Building Trust
This is one of the most important keys to expanding a the sensory repertoire of a child with tactile defensiveness. Doing too much at once can actually cause big setbacks. Make sure there are no surprises, sudden moves, or unpredictable changes to the activity once you’ve explained it to the child. It’s so important to build that sense of trust.
Show the child that you hear them and understand that they are anxious about touch experiences. Allow them to observe the activity first before participating themselves. It’s especially effective to have kids watch their peers engaging fun with a tactile activity with no pressure to participate. Often, they’ll find their own way to participate that’s comfortable for them.
Instead of jumping into messy play right away, try exploring messy media inside a ziplock bag first.
2 || Deep Pressure
For many kids who demonstrate tactile hypersensitivity or defensiveness, light touch can be particularly aversive. This might mean that they will have extreme responses to clothing brushing against their skin, tickling, or even tolerating wind/air conditioning/rain on their skin.
Deep pressure can quickly help calm an anxious or overstimulated child without a lot of planning or equipment. This can include deep pressure activities, equipment, and even compression clothing. Check out some of our best deep pressure ideas here, including weighted tools.
3 || Decreasing Other Sensory Stimuli
Being aware of the other sensory stimuli in the environment can be extremely important for supporting a child during challenging touch experiences. Are there competing visual distractions? Is it a loud/crowded room? Try to decrease the amount of competing stimuli when possible.
4 || Provide Predictability
Using a visual schedule and keeping a similar routine when engaging in difficult touch experiences can be helpful. For example, try creating a bath time picture schedule so the child knows exactly what is coming and when.
5 || Use Visual Prompts and Preparation
For many kids, it can be helpful to talk about the upcoming sensory experience, describing what the activity is and how it will happen.
6 || Heavy Work
Activities that involve pushing and pulling against resistance can be calming and organizing for many kids with sensory concerns. Try these heavy work activities for school or these heavy work ideas for small spaces.
7 || Social Stories
Social stories can help the child develop a “script” for how they can respond to challenging tactile experiences. Can they ask for a break during messy activities? Can they ask for a timer to show how much longer the activity will last? Giving the child the words for how to ask for these supports is essential.
8 || Building on previous successes
Try to find tactile experiences that the child can tolerate and build on them! If the child doesn’t mind washing their hands but hates touching other things that are wet/messy, try using colored soap in the bathroom. If they don’t mind taking a bath, but won’t engage with finger paint, try using bath crayons/bath paint.
9 || Make it Purposeful
For messy sensory tables or sensory bins, try building in a purposeful/familiar/calming task. This can be calming and organizing for the child when they’re feeling anxious about a touch experience. For example, fill a bin with shaving cream bin and toy cars. Have the child pull the cars out one by one and rinse/dry them off to put them in a toy parking garage.
10 || Sensory input to the hands before messy play
Try preparatory tactile techniques like rubbing the hands together, slapping hands on the knees, clapping, weight bearing on the hands (e.g. downward dog, crab walks), pulling against theraband, or squeezing putty.
11 || Try tools for messy play
Sometimes kids who are reluctant to engage with messy materials have success when they can explore the items using a tool first. Provide brushes, squeegees, rollers, etc. when playing with shaving cream, play foam, or finger paint.
12 || Giving the child control
Above all, it’s important to give the child the reins and let them determine when they are ready to engage with various tactile experiences. Giving them choices and giving them control over the experience whenever possible is key to building trust and working through sensory challenges.
Other resources about Tactile defensiveness:
Claire Heffron is co-author at The Inspired Treehouse and a pediatric occupational therapist in a preschool/primary school setting. She began her career with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism but quickly changed course to pursue graduate studies in occupational therapy. She has been practicing therapy for 10 years in public and specialized preschool/primary school settings. She is a mom to three funny, noisy boys and relies on yoga, good food, and time outside to bring her back to center.
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