As an OT and a Mom, I find that it’s really difficult (almost impossible) to turn one of those switches off. As a result, I’m constantly overanalyzing my own daughter and her behaviors around sensory experiences, particularly her tactile sensitivity.
She’s only 2, but I am starting to notice some of the signs of tactile defensiveness, also sometimes referred to as tactile sensitivity. The first time I truly noticed it was when we were at an outdoor play class, and she stood fearfully beside me, clutching my legs as the rest of the class got up close and explored some mud and dirt. Since then, I have noticed several other “red flags” for tactile defensiveness. Here are just a few of them:
- Dislikes the feeling of clothes getting wet, even bathing suits
- Sometimes has to look away from even the sight of something messy
- Has big emotional reactions that requires extra support for recovery when she encounters a tactile challenge out of her control
- Walks on her tip toes
Sure, it might be too early to really tell if she’s tactilely defensive or if she just prefers to stay clean and tidy…but as an OT, I understand the benefits and importance of early intervention. And to be honest, I’m not willing to take the chance of letting this play out into something bigger.
So, if you’re interested, I’ll be documenting our road to tactile exploration as I start implementing some OT strategies for tactile defensiveness that I often use for clients at work. OT mama, to the rescue! Follow me on our tactile exploration journey!
[this article was originally written in 2019, listen to episodes 1-4 of the Sensory W.I.S.E. Solutions Podcast for Parents to hear how our story has played out]
First time exploring shaving cream
Here she is, the first time I presented her with the opportunity to explore shaving cream. She was curious, yet very apprehensive about making contact with it. She hovered with her fingertip, looking to me for reassurance as if to say “is this okay?” “is this safe?”
Despite multiple attempts to model it for her and assure her that it’s safe and fun, she was not ready to explore yet.
After a few more attempts of exploring, I got her to touch it with the very tippy-tip of her finger! I was ready with a towel nearby so she could wipe it off and continue the activity without walking away.
If I had let her walk away without scaffolding the activity so she could feel successful, it might have reinforced her avoidance of it. “If something is too hard, I don’t have to try, I can get out of it.”
After a whopping 30 seconds of exploring, she was about ready to call it quits. I wanted to see if she could handle more. That’s when I decided to scaffold the activity (e.g. make it even easier) so she could continue to participate without feeling uncomfortable.
I gave her the shaving cream lid to explore with.
Tada! She enjoyed this the most, and engaged with this part of the activity the longest. This is what I call, the “just right” challenge. The sensory activity was made easier and more tolerable by providing her a way to explore it successfully. It wasn’t too hard that she was unsuccessful and wanted to quit or walk away. It wasn’t too easy that she didn’t gain anything from it. It had just the right amount of challenge in order to learn and grow from the experience.
Tips for providing the “just right challenge”
If you are looking for ways to increase your little one’s tactile tolerance to messy play, try these tips:
- Be willing to model the play and get messy yourself!
- As you model touching and exploring with it, talk about what it feels like with objective words. “It’s cold” “it’s wet” “it’s soft”.
- Be ready with a towel or wipe nearby so they can feel “safe” exploring with an option to wipe right after.
- Offer a variety of different ways to touch the stimulus: with the tip of a nail, or the tip of a finger. If they continue to refuse, offer them a way to interact with it with another object (e.g. stick or spoon).
- Keep it fun and playful! Draw faces, put calming music on, play with food or dipping sauces.
- Continue offering it to them in different ways, days, and times. Don’t “give up” and stop providing them the opportunity to learn and grow just because you think they don’t like it. Remember, their brains are plastic and are so moldable and flexible at this age. It’s our job to provide them the opportunity to grow!
Follow the child’s lead. Never force a child to do something they are uncomfortable with. Most importantly, keep it fun and playful.