Tactile Defensiveness

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Tactile defensiveness is a sensory modulation difficulty that results in an inability to tolerate touch stimulation. Parents may suspect that something is unusual about their child’s behaviour, but since the signs of sensory modulation problems are subtle, the child may go undiagnosed for years. The condition, coupled with lack of sufficient coordination, produces symptoms similar to A.D.D. or A.D.H.D.

Sensory modulation is the ability to filter or attend selectively to sensory information, in other words, to pay less attention to unimportant things like the feeling of your clothes on your body and more attention to important things like the traffic in the street you are crossing. Sensory modulation typically improves as children mature. Children with poor sensory modulation may be over (hypersensitive) or under (hyposensitive) reactive to sensation. It is not unusual to be hypersensitive to some senses, and hyposensitive to others.

The central nervous system must rely on five sensory nerve receptors in the skin to keep it informed about its environment. These receptors are: light, touch (surface), pressure (deep), temperature (hot & cold) and pain. It is quite possible for one type of receptor to be sensitive and the other normalised. This explains why he/she may tolerate light touches, but dislike firm hugs; or hate clothing labels and haircuts. Such a condition directs the person’s attention more to what is going on in his/her surroundings and interferes with the ability to concentrate on the different learning tasks (i.e. a subtle breathing noise or smell of the child next to the person could be as important for the nervous system to pay attention to, as the voice of the teacher).

Tactile defensiveness is rarely the only sensory processing or modulation issue in an individual; it is usually a component of a wider dysfunction in sensory integration. Sensory integration is the ability of the brain to take in, combine, and organise sensory information so that it can be interpreted and acted upon.

In addition to vision (sight), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), and tactile (touch) systems that are familiar to most people, humans also rely on the vestibular system. The vestibular system senses head position in relation to gravity using the semicircular canals of the inner ear and the proprioceptive-kinesthetic system, which uses muscle stretch receptors (proprioceptors) to give information about the body’s position in space (kinesthesia). Together, the vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic sense systems give rise to the body schema, or a mental picture of the shape and position of the body.

Another important component of sensory integration is discrimination. Sensory discrimination is the ability to notice small differences in sensations. A child with poor tactile discrimination may have difficulty with fine motor skills. Trying to learn to use your hands when touch information is not well defined is similar to trying to pick up a small coin while wearing thick mittens.

Environmental alterations increase stress, particularly in the defensive individual, and stress increases sensitivity to tactile sensations. Children with poor sensory modulation become easily overwhelmed by their world. This can be particularly difficult for the family when an outing or special occasion arises.

In the school environment, for example, the high proximity of many bodies increases the chance for the accidental light touch, which is terrifying to the child with tactile defensiveness. An increase in noise from cheering crowds ,or amplified sound, will overwhelm a child with high hearing sensitivity.

Such a child may cover his ears with his hands and cry, scream, or make nonsense sounds to cover up the intolerable outside noise. A child with visual hypersensitivity may cringe at the variety of sights, and he may squint or close his eyes to feel safe. Waiting in queues proves particularly intolerable for children with sensory modulation difficulties.

So what can be done?

In the C.Q. programme the parents are taught a special massage, which needs to be applied for 10 minutes a day over a period of a few months. The massage simultaneously reduces the hyper sensitivity in the skin sensors and at the same time, develops the proprioceptor one.

As a result, an improved balance between the two nerve groups is being created, which allows better ability to prioritise the stimulation one wants to relate to – concentration – as well as having a strong impact on a child’s quality of life in many areas other than academic learning.