How to Support Tactile Discrimination Disorder

Tactile discrimination disorder affects one’s ability to detect or respond to touch, temperature, or pressure. It is one of the eight subtypes of Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) and one of many manifestations of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Learn more about SPD and its subtypes here.

See below for some ways to identify and support discrimination challenges.

Those with Tactile Discrimination Disorder May:

  • 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 difficulty performing certain motor tasks, such as getting dressed or riding a bike.

How to Support Auditory Discrimination Disorders:

  • 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.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

How to Support Tactile Avoiders

Tactile avoiders are highly sensitive to touch or temperature and tend to become overwhelmed or distracted by everyday tactile input. Avoiders often have extreme or upsetting reactions to even very mild stimulation. As a result, they can appear withdrawn or defensive and have trouble fitting in with their peers. They also frequently experience symptoms associated with anxiety disorders and engage in repetitive self-soothing behaviors.

See below for some ways to identify and support tactile avoiders.

Tactile Avoiders May:

  • 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.

How to Support Your Tactile 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.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

How to Support Tactile Seekers

Tactile seekers are desensitized to touch and crave sensory stimulation via specific textures, temperatures, and deep pressure. Seekers may seem to need constant stimulation. However, they tend to become more deregulated as they take in more input. Many seekers experience symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control, inability to focus, and behavioral problems.

See below for some ways to identify and support tactile seekers.

Tactile Seekers May:

  • 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.

How to Support Your Tactile 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.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

Sensory Spotlight: Tactile (Touch)

This is the fourth installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

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. You can read more about how the tactile system works on the STAR Institute’s website.

See below for a quick guide on identifying tactile seeking, avoiding, and discrimination issues in children.

Tactile Seekers May:

  • 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.

Tactile Avoiders May:

  • 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.

Those with Tactile Discrimination Disorder May:

  • 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 difficulty performing certain motor tasks, such as getting dressed or riding a bike.

Sensory Spotlight: What Is SPD?

This is the first installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.

Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) do not respond to this everyday sensory information the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the smallest bit of stimulation, or they might be unable to recognize even very extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more pronounced in children.

Children with SPD often have a hard time fitting in with their peer group. They might show signs of anxiety or depression, be withdrawn, struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. Many children have learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others, such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, sucking on their thumbs or other objects, etc.

SPD is generally broken down into the three patterns and thirteen subtypes listed below. Keep in mind the exact symptoms will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many people with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.

Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

Sensory Over-Responsivity (Hypersensitivity) – Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, are hyperaware of sensory input and may have extreme or upsetting reactions to even mild stimulation, such as crying out in pain while brushing their hair or gagging at very faint smells. Avoiders often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations and may appear anxious, withdrawn, or defensive as a result.

Sensory Under-Responsivity (Hyposensitivity) – Those who are under-responsive have difficulties detecting and/or responding to sensory input in a timely manner. They might not notice that the lighting or temperature in the room has changed, for example, or that they’ve bumped into something and injured themselves. As a result, under-responsive individuals often appear distracted, dismissive, or clumsy.

Sensory Craving – Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation, though they tend to become more keyed up and deregulated as they take in more input. Seekers usually demonstrate behaviors associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control and constant moving, fidgeting, bumping into things, or fiddling with objects.

Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Postural Disorder – Postural disorder affects the body’s ability to stabilize itself and maintain a sense of balance. Individuals with this subtype often have problems slouching or bad posture. They might also appear to be weak, move awkwardly, or have extremely low endurance.

Dyspraxia (Motor Planning Problems) – Those with dyspraxia have difficulty planning and performing new, nonhabitual gross and fine motor tasks. They might appear to have extremely poor hand-eye coordination, problems with concentration, and take much longer than their peers to learn a new skill.

Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Individuals with this pattern have difficulty recognizing and interpreting sensory information. They’re often unable to gauge the physical differences between objects, such as size, color, shape, or distance. They might be unaware of the pressure or force they’re exerting at a given moment and appear awkward, clumsy, and prone to spilling drinks or breaking toys.

SDD is further broken down into eight subtypes, one for each sensory system:

  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Tactile
  • Vestibular
  • Olfactory
  • Gustatory
  • Proprioception
  • Interoception

We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these systems, including strategies for supporting children with SPD, as our Sensory Spotlight series continues. Stay tuned!

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