Tactile (Touch)

The tactile system is responsible for the body’s ability to perceive pressure, temperature, traction, and pain. Children with tactile processing issues may have an unusually high or low pain threshold and be very particular about the texture of their clothing, toys, and other surfaces. 

The tactile sense is a function of the receptors in our skin that receive and give messages related to pressure, vibration, texture, temperature, pain, and the position of our limbs. For instance, a specific fabric of a shirt might be soft to some, but those with tactile discrimination might feel this shirt as rough and uncomfortable.

See below for a quick guide on identifying tactile issues as a seeker, avoided, or sensory challenged, and how you can help support your child with these struggles.

Tactile Issues May Appear As | How to Support Tactile Issues | Learn About the Other Senses

Tactile Issues May Appear As:

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Seeker

  • Prefer toys, clothing, and food with varied or specific textures. 
  • Constantly touch or fiddle with clothing, surfaces, or other objects.
  • Crave hugs, kisses, and other frequent or prolonged contact with others.
  • Prefer messy play and activities, such as finger paint, play doh, and sand.
  • Tend to play too rough and accidentally harm others while playing.
  • Have difficulty recognizing and respecting others’ personal boundaries.
  • Have a higher than normal pain threshold and might not notice minor injuries.
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Avoider

  • Avoid toys, clothing, or food with specific textures.
  • Dislike being touched, hugged, or kissed, even by parents.
  • Avoid getting dirty and avoid playing in sand, dirt, or grass.
  • Dislike their hair or skin being wet and avoid swimming and bathing.
  • Refuse to wear tight, scratchy, or uncomfortable clothing with seams or tags.
  • Avoid play with other children and constantly worry about being touched or bumped.
  • Become anxious in crowded spaces or when standing even somewhat close to others.
  • Have a low pain threshold and respond to even light touch as if in pain.

Challenged

  • Do not notice when they’re being touched.
  • Be unable to gauge the temperature of food and drinks.
  • Have difficulty identifying or distinguishing objects by feel.
  • Tend to play too rough and accidentally injure themselves or others.
  • Have difficulty recognizing and respecting others’ personal boundaries.
  • Have a high pain threshold and might not notice minor injuries.
  • Use too much pressure when writing or playing and frequently break pencils or toys.
  • Have a difficult time performing certain motor tasks, such as getting dressed or riding a bike.

How to Support Tactile Issues:

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Seeker

  • Use fidget spinners, stress balls, and stretchy bands.
  • Provide a variety of textures in toys, clothing, and food.
  • Play with finger paints, Play-Doh, sand, mud, and other messy objects.
  • Build a sensory table at home and include water, sand, Legos, or other textures.
  • Place Velcro, stickers, or fidgets in study areas to help your child stay focused.
  • Practice ways to respect personal space while eating, playing, lining up, etc.
Batch 1

Avoider

  • Remove tags from clothing and turn uncomfortable items inside out.
  • Put long hair up in a towel or hair tie when bathing or swimming.
  • Buy compression or athletic clothing to wear under loose or scratchy items.
  • Use gloves or tools to engage with new or unpleasant textures.
  • Encourage low-contact outdoor games, such as racing, tag, or tug-of-war.
  • Introduce new foods slowly and in the preferred texture, such as mashed or crunchy.
  • Warn family and friends ahead of time that hugging and touching is not desired.

Challenged

  • Encourage safe, low-contact outdoor games, such as racing, tag, or tug-of-war.
  • Experiment with weighted pencils and practice writing on different kinds of paper or textured surfaces, such as tissue paper, chalkboards, or marker boards.
  • Play games to practice identifying common and related objects by feel. Place common household items in a “mystery bag” and have your child reach in and name the items without looking.
  • Practice dressing, tying shoes, and performing other motor tasks in front of a mirror. Print out a visual step-by-step guide for your child to reference.

Read more about the tactile system on the STAR institute’s website.