Clothing Sensitivity & Tactile Defensiveness
Everyone’s nervous system interprets stimuli from the environment, including stimuli from sensations. Within the nervous system, tactile receptors are designed to respond to vibration, pressure, movement, temperature, and pain. When one’s tactile system is out of balance and disorganized, interpretations to any or all of these sensations can be affected.
An individual who has problems within the tactile system may present with hypersensitivity to touch (tactile defensiveness), hyposensitivity to touch, or decreased tactile discrimination.
Tactile Defensiveness is oversensitivity in the sensations perceived through the skin. This leads to aversion to the feel of light touches and particular materials, which can trigger a negative, undesirable response from the individual.
Symptoms of tactile defensiveness may include sensitivity and irritation to specific materials and clothing, including:
- waist bands
- certain shoes, such as strappy sandals or shoes with a backing
- bathing suits
- lace on clothing
- ruffles on clothing
- clothing tags
- hats, headbands, hair ties
- strong preference for limited types of fabrics and/ or clothes to be washed in specific laundry detergent
- the feel of carpets and bed linens, etc.
As one with tactile defensiveness learns which situations feel unpleasant, they began to anticipate them and may avoid them altogether. If confronted, they may respond negatively or show an emotional outburst. Examples of such situations may include:
- having hair brushed or washed
- getting nails trimmed
- having dental work
- wearing sports uniforms
- wearing tights, bathing suits
- wearing helmets for a game/ activity
Children and adolescents with tactile sensitivities may choose to withdraw from certain activities and experiences to avoid unpleasant sensory input. This means they are more likely to miss out on emotional, social, physical and cognitive opportunities and areas of growth.
An occupational therapist can help a child with tactile defensiveness by slowly and systematically introducing the stimuli perceived as noxious while in a positive environment. Additional strategies to help the child include:
- Weighted vests
- Lap weights, water-bottle or bean bag pillow
- Applying deep pressure by getting a hug or massage
- Therapy ball or pressure “squishes” (pictured above)
- Brushing Protocol
- Alternating Hand Hugs (AHHs)
- Wrapping up in a blanket or yoga mat- making a “burrito” (pictured above)
- Have the child move and dance while in a body sock
- Other proprioceptive activities that introduce tactile input and help increase body awareness
Not all strategies have the same effect on every child, so it’s important to monitor the child’s response and behaviors when each one is tried.