Does your child over-react to being touched or cuddled? Do they avoid certain clothing textures or tags? Do they avoid handling certain objects like slime (ewwww)? Perhaps your child constantly seeks to touch certain textures or is drawn to messy activities.
Touch processing skills are also referred to as tactile processing skills. Everyone has touch receptors (tactile receptors) located under the surface of the skin. These touch receptors send messages to the brain, giving the brain information about the nature of the environment that a person is engaging with. Is the environment or object inviting, or is it threatening? The brain’s perception of this information differs from child to child, and this is the reason for varied responses and behavioural presentations.
Some children experience too much or too little stimulation through their touch receptors. In order to balance their sensory system and bring themselves back to a comfortable state, children often adopt certain behaviours. These behaviours can be referred to as ‘sensory seeking’ or ‘sensory avoiding’.
Picture a kindergarten room with a group of children doing a painting exercise. Some children will be totally immersed in the activity, painting not only the paper, but their hands and perhaps face as well (or the face of the child next to them!). Whilst other children are very careful not to get any paint on them at all, perhaps avoiding the activity altogether.
Children who actively seek more stimulation through their touch receptors engage in behaviours that are ‘sensory seeking’. There appears to be a constant need to touch or stroke preferred textures. Should the child not have opportunity to bombard their touch receptors, they may become irritable or have difficulty sitting still. Without such knowledge of the sensory system, many people label these children as being naughty or lacking self-control. Parents of such children may say, “My child is always messy?” or “My child always has food all over their face”.
On the other hand, some children actively limit stimulation through their touch receptors, as this sensation is perceived as painful or uncomfortable. In this case, the sensory system is hypersensitive. There are intervention strategies that can help to desensitise the touch receptors and it may be beneficial to also explore the options of ‘pressure touch’ which has been noted to calm the nervous system. For these children, the thought of engaging in certain activities can be very anxiety provoking, which leads to ‘sensory avoiding’ behaviours such as avoiding being touched by others, having their hair washed or brushed and only wearing certain clothing textures.
Whether your child exhibits ‘sensory seeking’ or ‘sensory avoiding’ behaviours, there is often a flow-on effect to other areas of development. From a social perspective, children who constantly seek out sensory stimulation may become distracted by their need to engage with certain textures, which can affect relationships with their peers. Alternatively, children who avoid certain environments are often limiting their learning opportunities as they become overwhelmed by the incidental touching of others in the school environment, for example having to hold hands to walk into class or little Johnny leaning on he/she during mat time.
It is important to note that touch sensation releases serotonin…yep…that’s the feel good chemical. So if you have a child that is anxious or stressed, you can use touch to calm them. A long bear hug works just as well as a nice back rub before bed.
Should you have any concerns about how your child in interacting with their environment, it is important to seek professional advice. An OT can undertake an assessment of your child’s touch processing skills, and provide intervention strategies to help maximise your child’s learning and life experiences.