At Great Kids Place we understand the impact of sensory experiences on emotion regulation and relationships, as well as its ability to allow or prevent us from engaging in meaningful activities. One of the focal points of our therapy is reframing sensory experiences as safe and fun. We know that the most effective way to do this is through PLAY! Not only is play the work of children, it has been scientifically proven to place children in a safe, exploratory ‘zone’ where they can discover, learn and develop most effectively.
In our SAFE (Sensations As Fun Experiments) program for touch sensitivity one of our therapists will guide you and your child as you explore various touch experiences through play in the context of your relationship with your child in your home (via Zoom). When children have positive interactions with various tactile experiences while playing with you, their brains reframe a once negative experience as a positive one, and will therefore be less likely to avoid engaging in these experiences in the future.
One of the benefits of working on tactile sensations at home, is that children are in a safe and predictable environment. At home, children get to engage with materials that they may perceive as noxious while using some of their favorite toys, and while playing with people they love. Within the nervous system, when children are anxious – their over responsivity increases – and when their over-responsivity increases – their anxiety increases. If we can make children feel safe, it helps prevent this cyclical pattern from igniting itself. At home, children can engage safely. At home, children can be in control of their own experience, can move in their own time and at their own speed, and get as messy as they want!
More About the Touch System & Touch Sensitivity (Or Tactile Defensiveness)
The tactile system is our touch system. Through the largest organ in our body – our skin – our tactile receptors allow us to understand pressure, texture, pain, as well as temperature. This system is the first to develop in utero, at approximately 8 weeks gestation. Children that are born prematurely are often given therapeutic touch through skin to skin with their parents (kangaroo care) to improve growth and development. As we grow, our skin helps us explore and feel comfortable in our environment, as well as to form relationships. If we think about our day, many things are done through our hands and body. When we introduce ourselves – we shake hands; when we are sad, need comfort or see someone we love – we hug. So what happens when our tactile system is over-responsive and this sensation feels too much? What happens when we crave that input and may touch more than others are comfortable with? How does this impact our overall engagement with others, our environment, and our quality of life?
Quite often, tactile defensiveness is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of “sensory”. These are the children (or adults) who don’t feel comfortable in their clothes, they may lash out if someone bumps into them, they are overly anxious of having messy things on their hands, may dread art work including finger painting, glue and clay, it may take 5 or 6 pairs of socks to find ones that feel ok, they may not want to wear a jacket, and they may hate bath time. Children with tactile defensiveness register even the most subtle sensations as too much, compared to others their age. Because of this, sensations may cause extreme irritation or even pain, and may lead to abnormally reactive responses such as grimacing or pulling away.
In recognizing that the skin is the largest organ in the body – and that it is the way we navigate with the world and share experiences with those around us – sensory over-responsivity of the tactile system can impact everyday life. If you have a negative experience when engaging with certain material or in a certain environment, it is likely you will form a negative memory attached to that experience. When that experience presents itself again – fight/flight/fright/freeze kicks in. This can look like – fight (hitting, yelling), flight (escape), fright (scared) or freeze (unable to move or act). When we consider this in terms of relationships – if one person is expressing their love (i.e. hugging their child) and the person on the receiving end is pulling away or yells/cries – this not only makes the receiver uncomfortable for being touched, but can be emotionally upsetting for the parent.
On the opposite end of the sensory spectrum, children who are under-responsive to tactile input may crave touch, not be aware they are being touched and may therefore not respond, may not be aware they are dirty or that their clothes are ‘disheveled, and may thoroughly enjoy messy play.
If you are unsure if tactile processing is impacting your child’s social emotional well-being and development, see the checklist below to help determine if this program would be beneficial for your family.
Feeling “too much”
- Becomes fearful, anxious or aggressive with light or unexpected touch
- Arches back, cries, and pulls away when cuddled or touched
- Becomes frightened when touched unexpectedly
- Complains about having hair brushed
- Resists friendly or affectionate touch
- Dislikes kisses, will “wipe off” place where kissed
- Water from the shower may feel like torture and may be avoided at all costs
- Has a big reaction to minor cuts, scrapes, and or bug bites
- Avoids touching certain textures (i.e. rough bed sheets)
- Refuses to wear new or stiff clothes or certain types of clothes
- Distressed by dirty hands, having face washed, or having hair, toenails or fingernails cut
- Resists brushing teeth and is extremely fearful of the dentist
- Is a picky eater or only eats certain textures
- Refuses to walk barefoot on grass or sand
- Toe walks
Feeling “not enough”
- Craves touch; touches people to the point of irritating them
- Is not aware of being touched, bumped unless done with extreme force or intensity
- Is not bothered by injuries (cuts or bruises)
- Shows little distress with shots
- Not aware when face or hands are dirty or when his/her nose is running
- Self-injurious behavior (pinching, biting, or banging head)
- Repeatedly touches surfaces or objects that are soothing
- Frequently hurts others through rough play
- Thoroughly enjoys messy play
- Craves spicy, sweet, sour or salty foods
- Toe walks
What am I feeling?
- Difficulty with fine motor tasks such as buttoning, zipping, and fastening clothes
- Difficulty with scissors, crayons or silverware
- Explores objects by mouthing (even after age 2)
- Difficulty describing objects (shape, size, texture, temperature, weight)
- Relies on vision to retrieve objects
- Unable to identify which part of their body was touched if they were not looking
- Looks disheveled; does not notice when pants are twisted, shirt is half untucked, etc.