Thursday, October 20, 2005

Is Your Child Touch Sensitive?

Is Your Child Touch Sensitive?

Does your child cringe when you stroke his face?

Must he have all the labels cut out of his clothing before he
will wear them?

Does your child refuse to wear certain fabrics, such as wool
because it is scratchy?

Does your child refuse to touch anything sticky, slimy, or
dirty with his hands?

Does washing or brushing your child’s hair result in a major

Does your child hate to have his feet touched?

It could be that your child has a sensory motor integration
deficit known as tactile defensiveness or touch sensitivity.

What is Touch Sensitivity?

The sense of touch is essential for normal social and emotional
development. It is this system that allows us to make the
deepest connections with others. It is through touch that the
mother and child bond to each other. We connect most closely
with our spouses through touch.

Touch also serves a protective function. It is through tactile
discomfort or pain that we realize that things like fire are
dangerous. Painful or unpleasant touch experiences tell us to
prepare for a physical threat that might require a need to run
away or retaliate.

In some people this tactile sensory system is not functioning
properly. These people experience pain or distress from touch
sensations that other people find non-threatening or even
pleasant. These people have sensory integration disorder known
as tactile defensiveness or touch sensitivity.

Children with touch sensitivity are often in the state of
“red alert”. Many of the sensations that we take as meaningless,
they view as a physical threat. Children with touch sensitivity
also experience tactile sensations differently than others.
Something that we experience as smooth can seem to them painful.
The result is that often their behavior is affected. Casual
contact can cause what others view as extreme and inappropriate
reactions. These children may whine cling lash out or run away
as a result of normal things in their environment.

Sensory motor integration deficits need not affect a child’s
learning ability, but the resulting reaction often does. Because
the child is frequently on the defense, he can be emotionally
insecure and extremely distractible. This is one of the things
that differentiate touch sensitivity from ADHD. ADHD children
have difficulty sustaining attention, but they are not more
easily distracted than other children. Small stimuli that would
not affect an ADHD child who is engaged in an activity, may
cause disturb a touch sensitive child.

To give you an idea of how these children experience the world,
imagine the feeling you have when someone scrapes his nails
along a blackboard, or the feeling you have when you cut your
nails too short. This is how a touch sensitive child might
experience a warm caress. There is a difference, however. When
you cut your nails too short, it bothers you for a while, but
the discomfort goes away. If a child is touch sensitive, the
discomfort never goes away.

The child may not be able to wear his dress pants because the feel
of wool is too uncomfortable to bear. He may not be able to
concentrate in school because he is enduring the hardness of the
chair or the rush of air blowing on him from the ventilation
system. He may be quick to lash out when another child bumps him,
because of the perceived attack by the other child. He may be
unable to make friends because of the fear of being bumped
prevents him from interacting in a normal fashion.

Adults with a sensory integration disorder may have problems
in their relationships with their spouses. Normal daily contact
may disturb them, and they may avoid physical contact with their
spouses even when such contact is appropriate. This desire not
to be touched can have a seriously negative impact on a marriage.

What You Might See

Here are some of the things that may indicate that your child is
touch sensitive. Your child may be touch sensitive if he:

  • Reacts strongly to sensations that most people don't notice.

  • Tries to avoid tactile experiences.

  • Gets distracted because of the things that are touching
    him are bothering him.

  • Insists on having certain textures of clothing.

  • Makes you cut all the tags and labels out of his clothing.

  • Won’t eat certain foods because of their texture.

  • Craves certain sensations the he finds calming, like
    rocking or firm pressure.

  • Fights irrationally when you are combing or shampooing
    his hair, cutting his fingernails, or brushing his teeth.

In adults and children with sensory motor integration deficits
the palms of the hands, soles of feet, mouth and tongue are
usually most sensitive areas.

Coexisting Disorders

Touch sensitivity is a sensory integration problem. Although
this disorder can exist by itself, more often it is part of a
constellation of other problems that children have. Children
with touch sensitivity often have the following other disorders:

  • Motor coordination problems

  • Bed-wetting

  • Speech and language delays

  • Hand-eye coordination difficulties

  • Motor planning difficulties

  • Allergies

  • Frequent ear infections

  • Poor eating habits

  • Problems with digestion & elimination

  • Sleep irregularities

  • High anxiety and emotional insecurity

In addition there are a number of medical disorders that
commonly have touch sensitivity as a component. These include:

  • Asperger’s Syndrome

  • Autism

  • ADHD

  • Bipolar Disorder

  • Down Syndrome

  • Dyslexia

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome

  • Fragile X

  • Learning Disabilities

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder

  • Pervasive developmental delay

  • Selective mutism


Like so many other disorders of the brain and complex
neurological function, we do not know why children and adults
have sensory integration disorders. In medicine, when we don’t
know the cause of something we like to say that the cause is
idiopathic. This is a term which is a term derived from Greek
or Latin or some other dead language, which means
“we don’t know.”

However as scientists, not knowing something makes us very
uncomfortable. Therefore there a number of theories on what
causes disturbances in sensory processing. There are at least
five competing hypotheses. The most recent research suggests
that the abnormality may lie in the cerebellum, the part of the
brain that modulates sensory motor activity. There might be
something to these theories. However, based upon the review of
current literature it seems to me clearly, that the cause of
touch sensitivity is idiopathic.

What Should You Do Next?

Touch sensitivity is a sensory motor integration deficit. The
goal of treatment is to repair the sensory processing disorder
by giving the child a means to develop his or her sensory
integration. The goal of therapy is to normalize sensory
integration and motor planning by improving the way the nervous
system registers and interprets tactile information.

Treatment of touch sensitivity is usually done under the
auspices of an occupational therapist. If you feel that your
child may have touch sensitivity you should first try to confirm
the diagnosis by going to someone who is trained in diagnosing
sensory integration problems. You should first consult your
pediatrician with your concern and try to get a referral to a
Pediatric Occupational Therapy Service for diagnosis and
treatment. They will manage your child’s treatment plan and
teach you what you can do at home to help your child.


Touch sensitivity is one of a number of sensory motor
integration deficits that affect children. It often accompanies
other disorders such as ADHD, Bipolar disorder, and other
developmental childhood disorders.

I have not seen any statistics, but it seems that sensory
integration disorders are fairly common. This condition can be
severely handicapping. However, it is often very treatable.
If you feel that your child may have this condition, it is
definitely in your child’s best interest to have a thorough
evaluation by an Occupational therapist trained in sensory
integration and motor planning.

Anthony Kane, MD

ADD ADHD Advances

Anthony Kane, MD is a physician, an international lecturer, and
director of special education. He is the author of a book,
numerous articles, and a number of online programs dealing with
ADHD treatment (,
child behavior and discipline, ODD, and education.

You may visit his website at
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