What Is Tactile Defensiveness and How to Lessen the Symptoms

That is tactile defensiveness?

Tactile defensiveness can cause problems with everyday activities for those affected by it. People who suffer from tactile defensiveness may have an aversion to certain textures or feel overwhelmed by certain textures.

This can make it difficult to perform tasks such as dressing oneself, brushing teeth, or eating. In this blog post, we will discuss what causes touch sensitivity and what you can do to manage the symptoms.

What is tactile defensiveness?

Tactile defensiveness is a condition that affects the way a person perceives touch. People who suffer from tactile defensiveness usually have difficulty with light touch. Light touch is when you barely touch something, like a feather.

For people with tactile defensiveness, this can feel like a strong touch, or even pain.

Tactile defensiveness can also make it difficult to tolerate certain textures.

Some textures that may trigger tactile defensiveness are:

  • sand
  • grass
  • glue
  • leaves
  • feathers
  • certain clothing fabrics
  • foods
pile of sweaters

What causes tactile defensiveness?

Tactile defensiveness is thought to be a nervous system over-reaction to the light touch sensation. It triggers a fight or flight reaction in some people.

What other conditions may include sensitivity to touch?

Sensory processing disorder

This is a condition that affects the way the brain processes sensory information. People with SPD may be oversensitive to touch, sound, and light. Tactile defensiveness is a part of sensory processing disorder.

Autism spectrum disorder

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect how a person perceives sensory information. People with autism may demonstrate symptoms of sensory processing disorder, sensory defensiveness, or tactile defensiveness. However, having tactile defensiveness does not mean one has autism.

Anxiety

Anxiety can cause people to be on high alert, which can make them more sensitive to touch and other stimuli.

ADHD

People with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD may have difficulty filtering out sensory information. They may include them being sensitive to touch or other sensations.

What are the symptoms of tactile defensiveness?

The symptoms of tactile defensiveness can vary from person to person. You may see these symptoms only with a persons hands, feet, whole body or mouth.

Some common symptoms are:

– Overreacting to light touch

– Avoiding touching or eating certain textures

– Feeling overwhelmed by certain textures

– Dislike being touched

– Difficulty wearing certain clothing items

Difficulty eating certain foods/picky eating

If you or your child are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional. They can help you determine if tactile defensiveness is the cause and provide guidance on how to manage the symptoms.

adult touching child's foot

How is tactile defensiveness diagnosed?

Tactile defensiveness is usually diagnosed by an occupational therapist as part of an overall evaluation. They will use parent questionnaires for a young child, or a self-reporting questionnaire to ask about symptoms. They may also use standardized tests such as the Sensory Processing Measure or Sensory Profile.

How to lessen tactile defensiveness

There are a few things that can be done to help manage tactile defensiveness.

Pediatric Occupational Therapy

A doctor or other healthcare professional may recommend pediatric occupational therapy. Occupational therapists may use sensory integration therapy or sensory activities in their treatment. This therapy that uses different activities to help the brain process sensory information more effectively.

Does your child have a hard time staying calm?

Is it a meltdown or a tantrum?

Learn the differences so you can respond with confidence!

Meltdown or tantrum download

Avoiding the tactile trigger

It is also important to avoid stimuli that trigger tactile defensiveness. This may mean avoiding certain textures or reducing the tactile input. Or helping to find alternatives.

For example: If your child hates sand, and you have a cruise planned with a beach stop planned, you can have them wear shoes on the beach and provide a blanket, chairs, or a tent for them to sit.

Using understanding for those with tactile sensitivity 

It is important to provide support and understanding to people with tactile defensiveness. This can be a difficult condition to deal with, so it is important to offer patience and support.

What touch sensations bother people with tactile sensitivity?

The following are some if the sensations people with tactile defensiveness have a hard time with and what you can do about them.

  • Clothing tags – Buy clothing without tags (especially underwear) or cut them out.
  • Sock seams – Wear them inside out or buy ones without seams.
  • Jeans or scratchy clothing
  • Light unexpected – Use firm touch when touch is needed
  • Tickling – Always avoid tickling! That high-pitched laugh (even if they say more!) is a very unorganizing sensation.

Tactile defensiveness clothing

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The best type of clothing depends on the individual and the severity of their tactile defensiveness.

There are some specialized clothing lines for people with tactile defensiveness

What is the treatment for those who are sensitive to touch?

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for tactile defensiveness. The best approach depends on the individual and the severity of their symptoms.

Some people may only need to make minor changes, such as avoiding certain textures or using lotions to help reduce tactile input.

Others may need more intensive treatment, such as sensory integration therapy. This is a type of therapy that uses different activities to help the brain process sensory information more effectively.

Some hypersensitivity to touch may be reduced with the following sensory input.

Deep pressure touch

Deep touch pressure is strong, firm tactile input. It can be provided through:

  • Massage
  • Squeezing body parts such as feet, arms or legs.
  • Using a body sock
  • Use a weighted blanket or vest
  • Compression clothing
  • Smushing with pillows.
  • The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol (this technique should not be used unless you are trained by a qualified OT professional)
Hands touching

Proprioceptive Input

Proprioception is the information that comes from the position and movement of our joints and muscles. Many people find proprioceptive input calming and it may decrease tactile defensive symptoms.

Proprioceptive input can be provided through:

  • joint compression
  • heavy work activities such as pushing, pulling or carrying
  • jumping
  • crashing

Desensitization Techniques are NOT recommended at home

NEVER force a child to touch items they do not what to. To us, they may seem innocuous, but to them, they may feel like pins and needles or FIRE!

Desensitization may be part of therapy sessions, however, it is part of a very thought-out detailed plan that may not be obvious to an observer.

Can adults have tactile defensiveness?

Tactile defensiveness can occur in people of any age, but it is most common in children. It is estimated that up to 16 percent of school-aged children may be affected by tactile defensiveness. Some adults may have tactile defensiveness as a result of having it as a child. However, it is also possible for adults to develop tactile defensiveness later in life.

Do you outgrow tactile defensiveness?

Some people with tactile defensiveness may outgrow it, but others may continue to experience symptoms into adulthood. Tactile defensiveness can be a lifelong condition, but you can manage the symptoms.

Does your child have a hard time staying calm?

Is it a meltdown or a tantrum?

Learn the differences so you can respond with confidence!

Meltdown or tantrum download

Do you or your child have tactile defensiveness? If so, there are some things you can do to help make life a little easier. Everyone is different and will respond differently to various treatments, so it may take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Hopefully, the information in this post has given you a good starting point for finding relief from tactile defensiveness. Please share your own tips and experiences in the comments below – I would love to hear from you!

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