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Touch (tactile) system

Our sense of touch (tactile sense) comes from receptors in our skin all over our bodies.

Information is sent to the brain about the type of touch such as deep pressure, light touch, pain, temperature or vibration in order to make an appropriate response. If the brain does not process the touch sensation accurately then we may be described as over-responsive or under-responsive to touch sensation and this will affect our behaviour.

If a child has an over responsive tactile system they might:

  • Avoid being touched
  • Dislike hugs
  • Become very disorganised, over emotional or out of control if they experience games involving a lot of touch, such as ‘rough and tumble’
  • Over react to someone brushing past them in the corridor
  • Avoid messy play
  • Prefer to wear long sleeves even though it’s a very hot day
  • Dislike the texture of certain clothes or material on the skin, such as labels or seams
  • Dislike walking barefoot on certain surfaces, such as grass or sand

If a child has an under responsive tactile system they might:

  • Appear to have a dulled sense of touch
  • Not register pain or react to cuts or bruises
  • Have poor fine motor skills or a weak grip
  • Enjoy or seek messy play more than most children
  • Touch and fiddle with all objects
  • Not notice clothes not tucked in or on straight
  • Not notice their face or hands are messy
  • Seek lots of hugs

If a child has an over responsive tactile system there are things that you can do to make them feel more comfortable:

  • Provide different tactile experiences and activities: don’t force your child to join in, offer new tactile experiences in small amounts at first
  • Avoid ‘light touch’ activities: use firm rather than light touch, deep pressure massage rather than tickling
  • Combine tactile activities with opportunities to experience proprioception (body awareness)
  • Give them as much space around them as possible, especially in the classroom
  • When queuing, place them at the end of the queue
  • Identify and encourage the use of ‘fidget’ toys - toys or objects easily played within the hand such as squeezy or stretchy objects: these are particularly effective when your child is sitting for long periods or getting to sleep at night, you could attach a small object to trouser belt loops to be kept in a pocket
  • Encourage your child to squeeze slowly along their hands and arms
  • Encourage your child to place their hands on their head and push down for slow count of five
  • Avoid crowded places
  • Encourage them to wear comfortable clothing
  • Use a calm quiet monotone voice to create a calm environment
  • Empathise with them: what is tolerable for one person can be unpleasant for another

If a child has an under responsive tactile system, there are things that you can do to make them feel more comfortable:

  • Give them more opportunities to experience activities involving increased feeling through the skin, for example a Lego activity, where the child is finding pieces in a box, is better than playing on a ‘games’ console or similar device
  • Play ‘What’s in the box/bag’: place a number of objects they’ve already seen in a box or bag and ask them to find the object you ask for without looking
  • Involve them in creative activities using playdough, clay and different textures
  • Identify and encourage the use of ‘fidget’ toys - toys or objects easily played within the hand such as squeezy or stretchy objects: they are particularly effective when your child is sitting for long periods or when getting to sleep at night, you could attach a small object to trouser belt loops to be kept in a pocket
  • Encourage them to use a mirror to check for tidiness when dressing
  • Encourage them to check if their face is clean after eating