Written by Kimberlee. Director / Occupational Therapist
Tactile Discrimination – Can’t Touch This….
Tactile Discrimination is the ability to tell what it is you’re touching just by your sense of touch. The tactile sense is part of the neurological sensory system and discrimination is only one part of the tactile sense. Discrimination is different to modulation which is the need to seek/avoid a certain sense (brainstem/reactivity) – e.g. your child might hate tags on their clothes and this is the brain’s sense of is this sensation safe or can I use it to block out other sensory stimuli. Discrimination when the sensation is sent to the thinking part of the brain (cortex) and the brain decides what the information is and how to respond to it.
Tactile discrimination is extremely helpful in everyday life although you’ve probably never thought about it before…Think about all the things you do throughout the day with your hands without looking – you’ll reach into your handbag for your keys, find a 50 cents coin in a pocket full of coins, knowing how hot a food is before you bite into it, do up the buttons on your shirt or zip on your jeans.
These things can only happen because your brain is able to recognise what it is you’re touching or looking for, disregard the things you’re not looking for, know that what it is you need to do with that object, how to hold it, how much pressure to apply and what to do if you can’t find what you’re after – e.g. look at where your hands are…Our adult brains have had years and years of feeling objects and storing that information in our brains – the size, shape, weight of objects and how they work. For most children, this information naturally gets stored to be reused when they need it. However, if you have a child that struggles with tactile discrimination they will generally struggle with most tasks that require fine motor precision. Throughout a child’s day there are so many activities they do that require this skill to be in tact. For example:
- Writing from the board without looking at their paper
- Knowing how hard/soft to hold a pencil and how much pressure to apply
- Finding an object in their bag by feel e.g. water bottle or ruler
- Getting dressed
- Eating dinner while speaking to the family
OT’s are able to examine whether a child has difficulty with their tactile discrimination. If you’re concerned about how your child is able to perform fine motor tasks you might want to play a tactile discrimination game at home.
Mystery box: Get a box or pillow case and put some objects inside that you know your child should be able to recognise and see if they are able to tell you what they are without looking e.g. a dinosaur, a pencil, a cup, a spoon. You can make it a little harder by having 2 of the same objects and they find the matching pair or sorting shapes such as different types of pasta.
Here’s a great example of my little guy using his tactile discrimination to feel his buttons and put them through the button hole. Then he is able to feel that he has finished the buttons, but isn’t quite sure so has to look at his shirt to confirm what his hands were feeling. Again, he uses tactile discrimination to feel for his shorts, tuck his shirt in, feel that it’s tucked in and says ‘finished’! When I question him he then uses his tactile discrimination again to feel around his back, grab his shirt (because he can’t see it) and push it into his shorts. Without this sensory system working optimally – this would be a virtually impossible task without having to look at each and every stage.