The tactile system is the sense of touch. It’s how we feel things on our body - clothing, water, food etc. It is also how we identify and discriminate between different items that we touch - a something soft versus something hard, something cold versus something hot. The tactile system is part of the nervous system and allows us to sense, perceive, organise, and integrate information through the receptors on our skin.
The tactile system is the first sensory system to develop in utero. After birth, the infant begins to experience new tactile sensations from being held to swaddled to bathing. As the infant grows and develops, they continually experience new tactile sensations that aid in developing a functioning sensory system and teach them about the environment.
Different tactile sensations range from light touch to deep pressure, to pain and temperature, and the variety of tactile qualities of objects around us. Because there is a relationship between the tactile system and our emotional centres in the brain, we relate many tactile experiences as pleasurable or not pleasurable based on past experiences and expectations. This is also because, in infancy, tactile experiences are the dominant form of communication.
WHY IS THE TACTILE SYSTEM SO IMPORTANT?
Not only does our tactile system allow us to experience the world around us, but it’s also connected to other sensory systems. As mentioned above, the tactile system is the first to develop in utero and coordinates specifically with the auditory and vestibular systems before birth. Additionally, the tactile system is directly linked to theproprioceptive system to facilitate understanding of where our body is in space and how much force we need to use during various tasks (i.e., how hard to push or pull, how hard to hug our friend, etc.). The tactile system is a vital form of communication.
SUCCESSFUL TACTILE PROCESSING
When our tactile system is working correctly, not only can we feel and identify objects within our environment, but we can also filter out unnecessary tactile input. We don’t get distracted by the clothing we’re wearing, or our hair brushing against our necks.
Additionally, a properly functioning tactile system aids in overall child development, from learning to roll and crawl and walk, to understanding toys and how objects relate to one another.
CHALLENGES WITH TACTILE PROCESSING
If a child’s tactile system is not functioning properly, they will experience difficulties making it through their day. There are different types of tactile processing challenges. Let’s take a look at each of them, focusing on the child’s perspective.
Simply put, tactile defensivenessis when the child cannot tolerate, or does not enjoy, certain types of tactile stimulation (specifically, tactile stimulation that is non-threatening and that other children are able to tolerate). This can be very individualised, meaning one child may be very defensive of light touch while another child may be very defensive of messy play.
When a child experiences tactile defensiveness (also known as hyper-responsive), they may experience real, physical pain with certain types of touch or when getting their hands messy. This seems odd to those of us who have fully functioning tactile systems, but to them the pain is real. This is why a child may completely avoid or even run away from a specific type of tactile input.
Let’s also quickly touch on the opposite of tactile defensiveness - tactile seeking. Tactile seeking is seen in children who are considered sensory seekers. Sensory seekers are considered overly touchy, they tend to mouth non-edible objects, and they often fidget excessively.
Tactile discrimination is the ability to identify objects based on touch. This means being able to reach into a bag full of random objects and name them without looking, just by feeling their shape, size, and texture. This also means differentiating objects based on those same characteristics - the difference between a tennis ball and a golf ball, based on their size. Lastly, tactile discrimination is knowing and understanding where something is touching you on your body.
Tactile discrimination can be difficult to pinpoint and is often misdiagnosed as something else.
TACTILE PROCESSING AND SOCIAL COMMUNICATION
As discussed previously, the tactile system is directly linked to communication and is the dominant form of communication for infants and caregivers. One research articlestates that, “Touch is considered one of the most basic ways to sense the external world and has a significant role in several social aspects such as communication, developing social bonds, and overall physical development and connectivity of brain areas. For this reason, skin has been proposed by some authors as a “social organ.” The article discusses the relationship between tactile processing challenges and social impairments.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Now that we’ve gone through some of the challenges with tactile processing, let’s talk about some strategies you can try if your child is struggling in one or more of these areas!
First, empathise! Children will do well when they can, and if your child is experiencing tactile defensiveness, they may be experiencing real pain.
If your child refuses to wear certain clothing, search out different types that they will be able to tolerate. Allow your child to wear clothing inside out to avoid the seams! This may mean the difference between having a meltdown and being able to get through the day.
If your child refuses to get messy and this is impacting their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities such as finger painting, provide modifications - instead of using fingers to paint, try cotton tips. Wear gloves while mixing ingredients. That being said, messy play is vital to our sensory system understanding and processing that tactile information.
If your child refuses to touch and/or eat certain foods (likely apicky eater), it may be beneficial to provide stress-free opportunities to explore food, such as playing with your food. Yes, I know. We were all told growing up to stop playing with our food. But if your child refuses a variety of foods, it can be beneficial to play and explore with those foods. If a child can tolerate a particular food texture on their hands, they will be more likely to tolerate it in their mouth!
If your child struggles with tactile processing, it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with your child. Nothing needs to be fixed. They may just need a little bit of help to process the sensory world a little bit easier.