All About Tactile Defensiveness

Posted byNikita Posted onAugust 1, 2023 Comments1
many people with tactile defensiveness do not like getting messy. For example, playing in the mud.

I’ve always been sensitive to touch in some capacity.

As a child, I would cry when I had too much lotion on, when wearing certain fabrics, or when my hair was being brushed too lightly. I would also avoid touching certain textures, such as jelly, because I didn’t like the feeling of stickiness on my hands. As I got older, some of my tactile defensiveness went away, like not being as bothered by fabrics. Some of them stuck around (Pun-intended. I still hate the feeling of touching jelly).

Tactile defensiveness is a condition in which a person has a negative reaction to touch. This reaction can range from mild discomfort to extreme pain. This can include sensitivity to textures, pressure, and even the feeling of certain fabrics against the skin. They may also be sensitive to light touch, such as a hug or a handshake. Tactile defensiveness is a common issue among individuals with autism and can impact their ability to participate in daily activities, such as eating, getting dressed, and even hugging loved ones.

The exact cause of tactile defensiveness is not well understood, but it is thought to be related to differences in sensory processing in the brain. For some individuals with autism, sensory input can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of anxiety, distress, and even physical discomfort.

What does tactile defensiveness look like?

  • Avoidance of touch. Even by people they know and trust. They may also avoid activities that involve touch, such as swimming, dancing, or playing sports.
  • Over-sensitivity to touch. Even a light touch can feel painful or overwhelming.
  • Negative reactions to touch. Such as crying, screaming, or withdrawing.
  • Changes in behavior. For example, they may become irritable, aggressive, or withdrawn.

It can impact academics in a number of ways.

For example, a child with tactile defensiveness may:

  • Avoid activities that involve touch. This could include activities such as art class, PE, or playing with other children.
  • Have difficulty sitting still. This could make it difficult for them to focus on their work or to participate in class discussions.
  • Be easily distracted. This could be due to the feeling of their clothes on their skin, the sound of the air conditioner, or other sensory input.
  • Have difficulty with fine motor skills. This could make it difficult for them to write, draw, or use scissors.
  • Have difficulty with gross motor skills. This could make it difficult for them to participate in physical education class or to play sports.

Tips for helping children with tactile defensiveness succeed in school:

  • Provide a quiet workspace. A child with tactile defensiveness may be easily overwhelmed by noise or other sensory input. Provide them with a quiet workspace where they can focus on their work.
  • Allow them to wear comfortable clothing. Children with tactile defensiveness may be sensitive to the feel of certain fabrics. Allow them to wear comfortable clothing that they feel okay with.
  • Offer breaks. Children with tactile defensiveness may need breaks from sensory input throughout the day. Offer them breaks to move around, stretch, or listen to calming music.
  • Be patient and understanding. It may take some time for your child to adjust to school and to learn how to manage their tactile defensiveness. Be patient and understanding, and offer them support as they need it.

Tactile defensiveness can also affect feeding.

People with tactile defensiveness may be sensitive to the texture of food, the temperature of food, or the way food feels in their mouth. They may also be sensitive to the sound of food being chewed or swallowed.

As a result of their tactile defensiveness, people with tactile defensiveness may:

  • Avoid certain foods. They may avoid foods with certain textures, such as crunchy foods, slimy foods, or foods with seeds or pits.
  • Be a picky eater. They may only eat a limited variety of foods.
  • Have difficulty eating. They may have difficulty chewing or swallowing food.
  • Have a gag reflex. They may have a strong gag reflex that makes it difficult to eat certain foods.
  • Throw up. They may throw up after eating certain foods.

    Many children who have tactile defensiveness feel the need to wash or wipe their hands frequently, especially during feeding, or touching unfamiliar textures.

More tips for management:

  • Identify triggers. What are the things that make them feel uncomfortable or even painful? Once you know the triggers, you can learn how to avoid them or develop coping strategies.
  • Create a safe space. This could be a room in the house or a special spot in nature to go to relax and de-stress. Make sure this space is free from any triggers that bother them.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercise can help to improve overall sensory processing, which can make it easier to cope with tactile defensiveness.
  • Get enough sleep.¬†When you’re well-rested, you’re better able to handle sensory input.
  • Talk to your therapist or doctor. If you’re struggling to manage your tactile defensiveness, talk to a therapist or doctor. They can help you develop additional strategies and support the journey

Occupational therapy can play an important role in addressing tactile defensiveness in individuals with autism.

Occupational therapists can use a variety of strategies to help individuals with autism overcome their sensitivity to touch, including:

  1. Sensory integration therapy: This type of therapy involves activities that help individuals to process sensory information more effectively, including activities that specifically target their tactile sensitivities.
  2. Desensitization exercises: These exercises involve gradually exposing the individual to textures, sensations, or materials that they find uncomfortable, helping them to build their tolerance and reduce their fear.
  3. Compensatory strategies: Occupational therapists can teach individuals strategies for managing their sensitivities, such as wearing soft or comfortable clothing, using textured utensils to eat, or using sensory tools, such as weighted blankets, to help them feel more comfortable.
  4. Body awareness exercises: Occupational therapists can use exercises and activities to help individuals to become more aware of their bodies and to develop a better understanding of their sensory sensitivities.
  5. Relaxation techniques: Occupational therapists can teach relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help them manage their distress and anxiety when they are exposed to touch or sensations that trigger their sensitivities.

Overall, with the help of occupational therapy, individuals with autism who experience tactile defensiveness can learn to manage their symptoms and regain their confidence in their ability to participate in daily activities. It is important to work closely with an occupational therapist who is experienced in working with individuals with autism to ensure that therapy is tailored to meet their unique needs and abilities.


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