What does it look like?
My child seems to get frustrated by the smallest brush on his skin. First I cut off all the tags on his shirts and pants, but now I’ve started buying pants and shirts that don’t have tags. He sometimes gets quite upset when there is dirt underneath his fingernails or sand inside his socks.
Some other signs may include some the following:
- Avoiding being touched in the face
- Avoids being tickled or cuddles
- Distress when washing hair
- Distress during toothbrushing, haircuts, and/or when having fingernails or toenails cut
- Very particular with certain types of clothing (elastic bands, sleeve lengths, seams)
- Frustrated when standing in a line, if other kids are bumping or brushing against him or her
- Avoiding being barefoot
- Very particular about the texture or temperature of food
Why is this happening?
Our body’s sense of touch (also called the tactile system) is based in the skin. Our skin has touch receptors that detect light touch, feel deep pressure, distinguish various textures, detect temperature, and feel movement of the hairs on the skin.
Touch receptors send information to the brain, which interprets the information and attributes meaning to the information. When touching objects, our brain quickly determines whether that object is painful, cold, hot, wet, or scratchy. In general, the brain is designed to quickly determine if a touch stimulus is dangerous. For example, if you touch a hot stove, your brain quickly distinguishes that this is hot and quickly tells you to move your hand.
Some children have differences in the way their brain processes tactile information. When putting on a new shirt, children notice the feel of the touch on their skin. Many children may initially notice the tag against the back of their neck, but they know this stimulus is not dangerous, and their brain stops taking notice. Other children have trouble processing tactile information. They brains do not filter out extraneous input, and they continue to feel the tag scratching the back of their neck all day, to the point that they cannot concentrate.
What does it feel like?
Imagine you are at home, sitting on the couch, watching TV in the middle of the day. You feel something lightly brush your arm. You scratch it and may or may not look at it to see if something is there.
Now imagine that you are in a foreign city and you’ve accidentally become lost. Somehow you end up walking down a dark alley, and suddenly something brushes your arm. Your whole body may start, and you may whip around to see what has touched you.
The same touch feels different in two completely different situations. Context as well as our current emotional state often impacts how our brains interpret tactile sensations. Moreover, children with tactile processing differences continually register certain types of tactile input as painful, even when they are not.
What can I do?
You’ve already started helping, just by beginning to learn about the tactile system and imagining what it might be like for your child! Every child is unique so not all strategies will work for each child but here are a few pointers:
- Light, ticklish touch is usually more irritating than firm, constant pressure. When having cuddle time with your child, use the palm of your hand rather than your fingertips.
- Encourage active, child-directed tactile experiences. For example, if going to play at a park with a sandpit, allow your child to control when he or she steps into the sand, and how messy he or she gets. Provide a variety of tactile experiences often.
- Clothing recommendations:
- To help your child prepare for dressing, have your child firmly rub or massage their skin to get it ready.
- Have child rub moisturiser into their skin. When skin is dry it can be more sensitive.
- Use compression clothing under regular clothing e.g. tight singlets, bike shorts.
- Involve your child in choosing new clothing and choose clothing with soft natural materials. This can help your child feel more control and choice which can reduce anxiety caused by sensitivity to clothes.
- Buy sensory friendly clothing. There are companies that make seam free clothing, super soft clothing, clothing with comfortable elastic waists and other supportive features.
Talk to an occupational therapist about your child’s difficulties processing with tactile information. The occupational therapist will conduct further assessment to determine if your child has sensory processing differences and determine strategies to decrease the impact of these uncomfortable sensations on your child’s behaviour. The occupational therapist will work with you and your child so that he or she can get dressed in the morning without as many problems, and begin to tolerate the feeling of various textures on the skin.
If you are concerned about your child’s sensory processing please book a start-up session with one of our occupational therapists below. We can help you to understand their specific sensory needs and teach you how to support your child to have fun and be happy more often.