Tactile Defensiveness Activities

Instructor: April Gwen Ellsworth

April has a master's degree in psychology and has experience teaching special populations from preschoolers to adults.

Tactile defensiveness activities aid in helping individuals who are sensitive to touch better process tactile input and become less overwhelmed by sensory experiences. Read on for advice and activities for reducing tactile defensiveness.

What is Tactile Defensiveness?

A tactile defensive child or adult is sensitive to stimulation to the skin, which is the largest organ of the body and includes even the inside of the mouth. Tactile defensive persons become overwhelmed with sensory input and even fearful of everyday activities and experiences.

Best Practices

Activities geared toward tactile defensiveness can definitely help. When engaging in the activities here, remember the following advice from professional occupational therapists for greatest success:

1. Respect the child's reactions to touch by introducing new situations and tactile stimuli slowly, gradually, and at the child's own pace.

2. Never force a child to touch anything he doesn't want to. This only causes further apprehension and avoidance and increases fears.

3. Explain new sensations to the child as you introduce them so he understands and feels he is in a safe, non-threatening environment.

4. Always model the new activity yourself so that the child sees it is safe.

5. Encourage the child and never punish him for reacting to overstimulation of his senses. It is not a behavioral response but a physical one, as we might react to a burn, a sharp slap, or pain.

6. When a child becomes agitated or overwhelmed, the activity should stop so that he feels in control and will be more inclined to try again later.

7. Include play during activities to calm the child, including silly voices, singing or humming, and movement.

Additionally, deep pressure touch is most accepted by tactile defensive individuals, as opposed to a light touch. Always approach a tactile defensive child from the front as well to avoid startling. If the child is not ready to touch a new object, let them use a spoon, cup, or similar object instead, or put the object or substance in a zip-lock bag and have the child squeeze it. Always start with dry textures and gradually move to messy ones.

Activities with Dry Textures

Dry textures can include dry beans, lentils, corn, rice, grass, leaves, tree bark, fabric, wood chips, rocks, pebbles, sand, dirt, ball pit balls, and packing peanuts.

  • Rice bin. Fill a plastic bin with rice, beans, sand, or bird seed and hide a few toys inside. Model touching the rice and playing in it. Ask the child to give you one of his hands and slowly sprinkle some rice on it over the bin. Give the child a play shovel and encourage him to dig in the rice, using his other hand to scoop rice onto the shovel. Gradually encourage the child to dig with both hands and have him find the objects that are hidden in the rice. As he becomes more comfortable, he can also rebury the toys.
  • Brushing. Have the child brush his own arms and legs with a soft hair brush or surgical brush, then progress to letting you brush him.
  • Fabric textures. Use a variety of fabrics such as fur, corduroy, felt, terrycloth, and so on to rub on the child's skin. Have the child walk on different textures of carpet squares. Additionally, you can put textured mittens or puppets on the child's hands and have him take them off.
  • Finger drawing. Draw a number or letter with your finger on a child's hand, arm, back and have them try to identify it. To simplify, they can answer yes or no or a multiple-choice question (is this an B or a P?).

Activities with In-Between Textures

In-between textures are not dry but do not stick the skin: Play-Doh, clay, moon sand, cooked noodles, Theraputty, squishy toys, Crayola Model Magic, Sculpey, play foam, and water beads and crystals.

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