Sensory processing for touch, also known as tactile processing, is the way that our brain processes information about our environment through messages from our skin. This includes light touch, pressure, vibration, temperature sensitivity and pain. With maturity and experience, children are able to process information about touch from our environment, put meaning to it and differentiate between elements of touch.
Each child receives and processes tactile information in different ways. Some children are hyposensitive and need extra stimulation to experience light touch, vibration, pressure, temperature sensation or pain. On the contrary, some children are hypersensitive and may become overwhelmed by tactile information. If a child has difficulties with receiving or processing tactile information, they may have challenges in the development of their body awareness, and automatic reactions. For example, they may not develop the ability to pull their hand away when something is too hot.
There are four patterns of sensory processing: low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitive and sensation avoiding.
Low registration: A child with low registration does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, and they do not compensate by trying to gain more sensory input to meet their needs. They may seem uninterested, and inattentive to their surroundings.
Sensation seeking: A child classified as sensation seeking does not recognize or process all of the incoming sensory information, but contrary to low registration, they actively try to gain this sensory input to meet their needs. They may be hyperactive, touch others often or engage in unsafe activities like jumping from heights.
Sensory sensitive: A child classified as sensory sensitive feels overwhelmed by sensory information, but they do not actively try to avoid the overstimulation, instead they may just display frustration. They may be easily distracted, and irritable, cautious, and uncomfortable in loud or bright environments.
Sensation avoiding: A child that is sensation avoiding feels overwhelmed by sensory information and will actively avoid the stimulation. They may run away from loud, busy environments, cover their ears when overstimulated by noise, or wear gloves to avoid touching certain materials such as paint.
A child who has low registration or is sensation seeking may require extra tactile input in order to process light touch, pressure, vibration, temperature sensitivity and pain.
If a child has a low registration pattern for tactile processing they may:
- Be able to tolerate very hot or cold temperatures. They may seem unaware of these extreme temperatures and changes in temperature.
- Be able to tolerate high levels of pain or seem unaware of pain. For example, they may not notice a large scrape on their knee or complain of any pain after a bad fall.
- Be unaware when their hands or face is dirty. For example, they may not notice if their hands are covered in dirt after playing outside.
If a child has a sensation seeking pattern for tactile processing they may:
- Seem unaware of their own strength, and as a result, play in a rough way.
- Squeeze too hard while holding hands with others.
- Rub or scratch at parts of the body to gain extra input.
- Touch people or objects and show a need to touch toys, surfaces, or textures more than others.
Laith is a 6-year-old boy who loves to play roughly with other children. As a parent you notice that he is always hitting hard surfaces with his hands and feet and pushing other children at the park. In addition, he often squeezes your hand very tight while you are crossing streets together. He also tends to feel and touch everything in his environment. When you went to the park the other day, Laith wanted to rub his hands in the sand, touch every swing and slide, and even went over to touch a stranger’s picnic blanket.
Based on the case you can see that Laith is sensation seeking for tactile input. He needs a large amount of tactile stimulation, and seeks it out by squeezing, playing roughly with other children and touching objects.
For a child who is hyposensitive to tactile information, you can try to provide the child with tactile input to provide extra, noticeable sensation.
Strategies to assist a child with hyposensitivity for tactile processing:
- Use firmer brushes and different textured cloths to provide extra tactile sensation.
- Encourage the child to play with playdough and goop as they can provide tactile input for children who like to squeeze things. You can change the texture by adding small beads or other materials into the playdough or goop.
- Play games such as One Potato, Two Potato or Hot Potato with hot packs and cold packs. This can help your child become aware of and sensitive to different temperatures.
- Encourage your child to pop bubble wrap or provide them with other fidget toys such as a fidget spinner or squeezy ball.
- Engage your child in tasks that involve “heavy work” such as pulling a peer in a wagon, stacking chairs or picking up heavy toys at tidy up time. These activities provide children with tactile stimulation through the use their muscles.
Children who are sensory sensitive or sensory avoiding of tactile sensation may appear over-sensitive to light touch, pressure, vibration, temperature sensitivity and pain.
If a child has a sensory sensitive pattern for tactile processing they may:
- Show distress and anxiety during grooming. For example, while brushing their hair, washing their face, or cutting their fingernails.
- Strongly dislike light or unexpected touch.
- Become anxious while standing close to others.
- Become irritated while wearing shoes or socks.
- Become irritated if their hands or face are messy.
If a child has a sensory avoiding pattern for tactile processing they may:
- Try to avoid being touched or show an emotional response when they are touched. For example, they may push you away if you try to hold their hand.
- Hold objects using only their fingertips and avoid using the palms of their hands.
- Avoid signs of affection such as hugging or holding hands.
- Insist on exclusively wearing soft clothing and the same clothing for multiple days. They may even prefer to be naked and require you to cut out clothing tags.
Jessica is a 5-year-old girl who does not like to be in crowded areas. She becomes anxious when others stand near her and yells when others touch her. She also does not like to give or receive hugs and kisses from anyone, including her family. She is very selective with the clothes that she wears. She insists on wearing the same cotton t-shirt with no seams or tags every day.
You notice Jessica has a sensory avoiding pattern for tactile processing. She is hypersensitive to feelings of touch, textures, and pressure and actively tries to avoid them.
Strategies to assist a child with hypersensitivity for tactile processing:
- Give the child advanced warning before doing an activity. For example, you can say “after your bath, we’ll brush your hair.” This allows for the child to process what is going to happen and prepare themselves.
- Encourage your child to take the lead when they get dirty during play. You can inform the child but allow them to clean up themselves, if possible.
- Try to avoid unexpected light touch and try to promote deep pressure such as through hugs, a weighted blanket or weighted toys.
- Try to show affection in alternate ways. If the child does not like being hugged, it is possible that a “high five” or encouraging words can accomplish the same feeling of affection.
- Provide the child with a ‘touch and feel’ box or bag. Place different objects into a box for the child to feel and explore. This allows for the child to experience different tactile sensations in a controlled setting. Examples of objects to put in the box at different times include sand, beads, marbles, wooden blocks, and slime. Over time you can add to the number of texture or objects in the box as the child’s tolerance and enjoyment increases.