What is Tactile Hypersensitivity?
People with tactile hypersensitivity, also called tactile defensiveness, are hypersensitive or oversensitive to touch. We can all be sensitive to touch at certain times, but those who are hypersensitive are oversensitive to a degree that affects their ability to function in life. The person may act defensively to sensory stimuli that bothers them. A tactility defensive person reacts negatively or is defensive to normal touch sensations. In the classroom, these teens may avoid participating in certain activities, avoid contact with others and exhibit emotional distress and outbursts due to unwanted stimuli.
Tactile hypersensitivity is caused by the central nervous system’s inability to modulate tactile sensory input. The central nervous system misinterprets incoming tactile stimuli sent to the brain by the nerves underneath the surface of the skin. Normal degrees of touch, pressure or temperature may feel painful, irritating and distracting. Tactile hypersensitivity may occur singularly, without the presence of any other conditions; however, it is commonly exhibited in those with sensory processing disorder and autism.
There is no known cure for tactile hypersensitivity. Occupational therapy, using creative sensory input activities, is the main treatment to help a person learn to cope and desensitize themselves to sensory input. Scientific studies have shown that repeated sensory input activities result in changes to how the brain functions (Wilbarger & Wilbarger, 2002; Ayres, 1972). Much of the research conducted has been on young children; however, it is now known that brain plasticity is present throughout the lifetime, meaning the brain can also change in older children and adults.
In the classroom, teachers can provide activities for teens to help them function in the school environment.
Before you begin working with the students in your classroom, consider the following:
- Because much of the research and available information on tactile defensiveness has centered around young children, suggested activities in literature often need to be adapted to fit teenagers.
- Most tacitly defensive individuals dislike soft touch, such as an object lightly brushing up against the skin, and prefer hard pressure, such as a firm hug. Although, each individual is different, so never assume what types of sensory stimuli are acceptable.
- Talk to the teen student to find out which sensory stimuli are bothersome and which are pleasing. Allow the teen to help build a plan for coping with classroom activities. Parents and therapists are also helpful resources for the teacher to learn what tactile stimuli the student has issues with.
- Always approach the student from the front, so as not to surprise them with unexpected stimuli. For example: Do not walk up from behind the student and place your hand on their shoulder.
- Talk to the teen student and explain each sensory activity — the purpose and how it works — before conducting it. Never force the student to participate in an activity when they are unsure of or unwilling to do. Sensory activities should not cause discomfort. If one activity does not work, try a different one.
- Success from classroom activities may vary. Some students may respond positively and quickly, while others may progress slowly or not at all.
- Ensure any specific accommodations needed are added to a student’s IEP.
Activities for Hypersensitive Tactile Teens
Occupational therapy, home treatment and classroom activities for hypersensitive individuals are sometimes referred to as the “sensory diet.” The sensory diet is the therapeutic use of sensory stimuli incorporated into daily activities. To affect brain function, sensory activities must be performed regularly and consistently.
Incorporating sensory activities into the classroom environment provides consistent exposure to the sensory stimuli for the student. There are no set activities that must be followed; activities can be adapted to the individual. Examples of activities that can be used in the classroom for are:
The Student’s Workspace
The student’s workspace should be a comfortable area, free from unpleasant sensory stimuli. Talk to the student to find out if any aspect of the workspace is uncomfortable and make any necessary changes. For example: If the carpet underneath the student’s desk is bothersome, place tile or linoleum over the carpet.
Provide textured balls for the student to squeeze during classroom lectures. Examples of textured balls are: sand-filled bags, bead-filled stress balls, zip lock bags filled with freeze-dried coffee, play dough and etc.
Provide a safe area in the classroom where the student can spend time when feeling overloaded by sensory stimuli. Before designing the safe area, talk to the student to determine which items they find comforting. Items that commonly comfort hypersensitive individuals include a bean bag chair, massage chairs, weighted vests and weighted blankets. Note: the materials that bean bags and chairs are covered with are often important. For example: One person may dislike the feel of cotton, while others may dislike the feel of nylon.
Incorporate art activities into class lessons using different textured media, such as clay and sand.
Body and Face Painting
Body and face painting are great sensory activities. You can incorporate these activities into a project in which the entire classroom participates. Put on a school theater production on endangered animals, for example. Assign each student the part of a different animal. Have the students paint their faces and bodies to look like the animal they are portraying.
PE: Walking on Textured Surfaces
During physical education class, have the student walk barefoot on different textures such as grass, dirt and concrete.
Weight lifting, working out using an exercise ball and jumping on a trampoline are often helpful activities for individuals who are tactile defensive.
PE: Swimming and Water Activities
Swimming can be therapeutic for those with tactile sensitivities. If your school has access to a pool, schedule a special time for the student to participate in swimming activities without other students present, as water splashing can upset the tacitly defensive individual. Have the student use the Jacuzzi as well, if one is available at the school. You can also look into available community programs if your school does not have access to swimming and diving facilities.
Avoidance and Sensory Comforting
Avoidance is a common tactic students will utilize to avoid tactile sensory stimuli. Teachers can help teens avoid bothersome sensory stimuli by allowing hypersensitive students to sit in the back of the classroom, stand at the end of the line and sit out of activities that require a lot of tactile participation.
Allow tactility hypersensitive students to escape to their safe area whenever they feel it is necessary. Schoolwork can be completed in the safe area instead of at the desk.
It may even be necessary to allow hypersensitive students permission to leave the classroom entirely when necessary. These accommodations can often be added to a student’s IEP.
Tactile Hypersensitivity: In the Words of a Sufferer
Holly has sensory processing disorder, with both tactile and auditory hypersensitivities. A smart teenager, Holly scored highest among her classmates on standardized testing and on her SAT. Despite her intelligence, her schoolwork began to suffer because of the classroom environment. Overloaded by tactile and auditory stimuli, she was unable to concentrate and function. Her environment did not accommodate her sensory issues, and it became more and more difficult for her to tolerate classrooms. As a result she eventually finished her education through homeschooling.
Now an adult, Holly shares her story of what it was like for her to attend junior high and high school with sensory processing disorder and what would have made her school experience better.
Difficulties Coping in the Classroom
“There were so many things that were difficult for me in the classroom. The texture of the carpet in the classroom bothered me. The sounds of the teachers’ shoes scraping on the carpet made me want to scream. When tactile or auditory stimuli bother me, I can think of nothing else. I found it unbearable to be forced to sit at my desk, unable to focus on anything other than the sensory stimuli that was tormenting me.”
“Certain clothing or items touching me is very irritating to my skin. I try to wear clothes that are the least bothersome, but sometimes my skin still is hypersensitive. ….Moving around sometimes helps. Sitting on an exercise ball where I could rock back and forth would have been better for me than a desk chair.”
Fidgeting in the Classroom
“Another classroom issue is that during lectures the teachers expected me to focus my eyes on them. What they did not understand was that I could focus on what they were saying much better if I had been allowed to play with a squeeze ball. Fidgeting with objects was not allowed. The teachers did not understand that the fidgeting enabled me to focus on the teacher. It helped me to focus on an acceptable form of sensory input, instead of stimuli that bothered me.”
“Because I also have auditory hypersensitivities, wearing ear plugs or listening to music through headphones would have helped me to concentrate on my classwork. Without something to block or drain out sounds, I could not focus on my work at hand. Instead, I could only focus on the noises that tormented me. To make things worse, when auditory stimuli bother me, my tactile hypersensitivities become worse.”
Explaining My Problems to the Class
“In school, especially during my teenage years, I understood that hypersensitivities were not normal. I also knew that they were difficult for others to understand. My moodiness and avoidance behavior probably seemed strange to others. I wish that the teacher would have dedicated a day to explain my disorder to the class. The teacher could have explained what tactile and auditory sensitivities were to help the students understand. I would also have welcomed the students to ask me questions about my disorder. Opening up a dialogue would have brought my disorder out of hiding; it no longer would have been a deep dark secret, which would have enabled me to focus on helping myself instead of trying to cover up my problems. I am sure that a few children would have made fun of me, but I believe the majority of the classroom would have taken a real interest in understanding my disorder. With my peers understanding, I would have been able to do things like wear earplugs, squeeze a ball, sit on an exercise ball and etc., without feeling embarrassed. Of course, I do recommend that a teacher get a student’s permission before sharing their disorder with the class.”
Things That Would Have Made My Life Easier in the Classroom
“I already talked about wearing earplugs, listening to music through headphones and squeezing a ball; these things definitely would have made school more tolerable for me. But there are other things that would have definitely helped as well. I wish I could have gotten up from my desk and went to a corner where I could have sit in a massage chair, lain down on a vinyl mat with a weighted blanket over me, or lain down in a kiddie pool filled with plastic beads. Escaping from my desk where I could only focus on my overloaded senses, into my corner, would have been such a relief. I know that listening to the teacher while sitting in a massage chair is unconventional, but it would have helped me to focus on lectures and my classwork. When you look at these items — massage chair, mats, headphones, kiddie pool, etc. — as tools, they make sense. To a person with hypersensitivities, these tools drown out bad sensory stimuli and comfort the person, enabling them to focus and function.”
“Some days are worse than others. No matter what tools had been provided for me, there would have been some days where coping was too difficult. If teachers would have allowed me to step out of the classroom for a brief break when I felt overloaded, I could have pulled myself together and re-entered the classroom stronger and ready to start again.”
Hypersensitive tactile activities for teens are tools to help them cope in a world that overloads their senses. Each individual is unique. What works for one student may not work for the other. Teens have the ability to vocalize what works and what doesn’t for them. Allow them to speak up and work with the student in developing and altering activities.
Many tacitly hypersensitive students also have one or more other sensitivities such as auditory, olfactory, proprioceptive, vestibular and visual sensitivities. Adjust the classroom environment and activities as needed to accommodate students with multiple sensitivities.
- Kranowitz, Carol Stock; Silver, Larry B.; The Out-of-Sync Child; Perigree Trade; Mar. 1, 1998
- Deiner, Penny Low; Inclusive Early Childhood Education: Development, Resources, and Practice; Jan 22, 2009
- Ayres, A. Jean; Sensory Integration and Learning Disorders, Los Angeles:Western Psychological Services; 1972
- Wilbarger, J.L.. & Wilbarger, P.; Wilbarger approach to treating sensory defensiveness and Clinical Application of the Sensory Diet. Sections in Alternative and Complementary Programs for Intervention, Chapter 14. In Bundy, A.C., Murray, E.A., & Lane, S. (Eds.). Sensory Integration: Theory and Practice, 2nd Ed. F.A. Davis, Philadelphia, PA.
- Lashno, Mary OT; Mixed Signals: Understanding and Treating Your Child’s Sensory Processing Issues; Woodbine House; Dec 14, 2009
- Horowitz, Lynn J. MHS OT; Rost, Cecile; Helping Hyperactive Kids — A Sensory Integration Approach; June 4, 2007
- Branek GT, Foster LG, Berkson G.; Tactile Defensiveness and Sterotyped Behaviors; The American Journal of Occupational Therapy; Department of Medical Allied Health Professions, University of North Carolina; February 1997