Tactile Defensiveness

Children who experience tactile defensiveness, a type of sensory processing disorder, are hypersensitive to touch sensations and are overwhelmed and fearful of everyday activities and experiences. Sensory defensiveness often prevents a child from interacting and playing that are both important to social and learning interactions.

Because their tactile systems are giving out inaccurate information, children with tactile defensiveness are often in the state of 'red alert'. They may exhibit extreme reactions to casual contacts within an everyday environment that can come across as bad behavior. They might react by clinging (fright), running away (flight), or lashing out (fight).

Common signs of tactile defensiveness include:

  • Issues with wearing clothes that are made of rough or itchy material.
  • Fussy after soiling their diaper or requesting immediate change.
  • Doesn't like unexpected kisses, touch or cuddling.
  • Avoids rooms full of people or big crowds.
  • Prefers hugging.
  • Doesn't like to engage in messy play or get dirty.
  • Walks on toes.
  • Very ticklish.
  • Doesn't like to have their face washed, teeth brushed, nails cut or hair brushed.
  • Picky eaters.

As their bodies respond in the 'fight-or-flight' response, children often become fearful, withdraw, avoid activities, or act out. This is because their nervous system interprets touch stimulation and sensations differently than others. You can equate it to spiders crawling up your leg which you can't get off.

How Pediatric Occupational Therapists Treat this Condition

Tactile defensiveness can be diagnosed in children by therapists, neurologists, developmental physicians, or early interventionists through various techniques, namely developmental evaluation and responses to sensory stimuli.

A child who has this condition can benefit from pediatric occupational therapy. Their underlying sensory defensiveness needs to be addressed for them to achieve the proper social interaction and developmental milestones.

This is not a condition that typically will go away by itself. By combining pediatric occupational therapy, a home program, and a good sensory diet, you can effectively manage this condition. Two of the best treatments for tactile defensiveness include the use of deep weighted/pressure products and The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol.

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