What is the tactile system?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC October 19, 2021

What is the Tactile System?

Simply put, the tactile system is the sense of touch. It’s how we feel things on our body - clothing, blankets, water, etc. It is also how we identify and discriminate between different items that we touch - a pen versus a pencil, something round versus something square. The tactile system is part of the nervous system and allows us to sense, perceive, organize, and integrate information through the receptors on our skin.

The tactile system is the first sensory system to develop in utero. In coordination with auditory and vestibular input within the womb, the fetus develops a functioning sensory system. After birth, the infant begins to experience new tactile sensations from being held to swaddled to bathing. As the infant grows and develops, they continually experience new tactile sensations that aid in developing a functioning sensory system and teach them about the environment.

Different tactile sensations range from light touch to deep pressure, to pain and temperature, traction, and the variety of tactile qualities of objects around us. Because there is a relationship between the tactile system and our emotional centers in the brain, we relate many tactile experiences as pleasurable or not pleasurable based on past experiences and expectations. This is also because, in infancy, tactile experiences are the dominant form of communication between the infant and caregivers.

 

Why is the tactile system so important?

Not only does our tactile system allow us to experience the world around us, but it’s also connected to other sensory systems. As mentioned above, the tactile system is the first to develop in utero and coordinates specifically with the auditory and vestibular systems before birth. Additionally, the tactile system is directly linked to the proprioceptive system to facilitate understanding of where our body is in space and how much force we need to use during various tasks (i.e., how hard to push or pull, how hard to hug our friend, etc.). The tactile system is a vital form of communication.

The tactile system is also directly linked with the visual system. Try this: look at something nearby - a blanket or a chair. Can you identify what it feels like without actually touching it? A blanket feels soft, and a chair feels hard, maybe even cold to the touch. You know this because you’ve touched them before, and you can recall that feeling when you look at the object(s).

Now try this: close your eyes and touch your nose. Try this: close your eyes and reach into your purse or a kitchen drawer and identify items without looking at them. If you were successfully able to do those tasks, it’s because your tactile system and your visual system are working together efficiently. Then, we can circle back to the proprioceptive system, which helps us understand where our body is in space, which helps us touch and feel objects and know where they are and how they relate to our body.

Whew. That's a lot! We have receptors all over our skin, which means our tactile system is constantly working and communicating with other sensory systems and our brain.

 

Successful tactile processing

When our tactile system is working correctly, not only can we feel and identify objects within our environment, but we can also filter out unnecessary tactile input. We don’t get distracted by the clothing we’re wearing, or our hair brushing against our necks. If someone accidentally bumps into us while walking on the street, we don’t become agitated or aggressive (hopefully!). We don’t become upset when someone hugs us or when our dog licks our hand.

Let’s take a look at a child who is successfully processing tactile information in the world around him. He is able to get dressed and eat breakfast in the morning. He is able to complete his morning hygiene routine of taking a shower, brushing his hair and his teeth. He is then able to go to school and successfully engage in school activities such as P.E., playing with friends, making a science project, etc. He is then able to participate in after school activities such as karate, soccer, or music lessons. He is able to complete his bedtime routine and successfully fall asleep.

This child is processing tactile information constantly throughout his day. From light touch from his clothing, to a variety of textures from food. From different textures at school (paper, writing utensils, maybe even getting messy with his science project) to deep pressure activities with sports. At the end of the day, he is able to tolerate a change of clothing and the feeling of his blankets as he lays in bed. He likely experienced different temperatures throughout the day, from being inside and outside to different temperatures of his food and drinks. He may have experienced an incident where he was injured on the playground, or someone bumped into him. He was able to interact with his environment without fear or anxiety because his tactile system was functioning correctly.

Additionally, a properly functioning tactile system aids in overall child development, from learning to roll and crawl and walk, to understanding toys and how objects relate to one another.

 

Challenges with tactile processing

If a child’s tactile system is not functioning properly, he/she will experience difficulties making it through their day. There are different types of tactile processing challenges. Let’s take a look at each of them, focusing on the child’s perspective.

Tactile Defensiveness

Simply put, tactile defensiveness is when the child cannot tolerate, or does not enjoy, certain types of tactile stimulation (specifically, tactile stimulation that is non-threatening and that other children are able to tolerate). This can be very individualized, meaning one child may be very defensive of light touch while another child may be very defensive of messy play.

Tactile defensiveness is often seen in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as “intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder), communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorder, and motor disorders.” (research article)

When a child experiences tactile defensiveness (also known as hyper-responsive), they may experience real, physical pain with certain types of touch or when getting their hands messy. This seems odd to those of us who have fully functioning tactile systems, but to them the pain is real. This is why a child may completely avoid or even run away from a specific type of tactile input.

Common signs of tactile defensiveness:

  • Refusal/challenges wearing certain clothing items or prefers to wear clothing items inside-out
  • Refusal/challenges to get hands and other body parts messy
  • Refusal/challenges to eat or touch certain foods (may be a picky eater)
  • Refusal/challenges to complete personal hygiene tasks (brushing teeth, washing face, toileting, etc.)
  • Refusal/challenges with touching others - hugs, bumping into peers, etc.
  • Refusal/challenges with nail clipping and hair cuts

Let’s also quickly touch on the opposite of tactile defensiveness - tactile seeking. If a child seeks out tactile input, they may:

  • Touch others to the point of irritation
  • Touch objects frequently
  • Fidget with hands or other objects
  • Mouth non-edible objects

Tactile seeking is seen in children who are considered sensory seekers.

Tactile Discrimination

Simply put, tactile discrimination is the ability to identify objects based on touch. This means being able to reach into a bag full of random objects and name them without looking, just by feeling their shape, size, and texture. This also means differentiating objects based on those same characteristics - the difference between a quarter and a dime, based on their size. Lastly, tactile discrimination is knowing and understanding where something is touching you on your body. If someone taps you on your left shoulder, you know it was your left shoulder and not your right elbow (this also plays into your proprioceptive system).

Common signs of deficits in tactile discrimination look like:

  • Poor praxis (ability to motor plan)
  • Challenges with handwriting
  • Unaware they are being touched, or misunderstanding of where, why, and how they are being touched
  • Unable to identify objects through touch, without the use of vision
  • Challenges describing how something feels (“this sweater is scratchy”)
  • May appear clumsy and have poor fine motor skills

Tactile discrimination can be difficult to pinpoint and is often misdiagnosed as something else.

 

Tactile Processing and Social Communication

As discussed previously, the tactile system is directly linked to communication and is the dominant form of communication for infants and caregivers. One research article states that, “Touch is considered one of the most basic ways to sense the external world and has a significant role in several social aspects such as communication, developing social bonds, and overall physical development and connectivity of brain areas. For this reason, skin has been proposed by some authors as a “social organ.” The article discusses the relationship between tactile processing challenges and social impairments (specifically in children with ASD).

Mom Child Hug

Let’s dive into this idea - think about the last time you talked with a close friend. Did you touch each other’s hands or arms during your conversation? Did you hug each other when it was time to part ways (or maybe even when you first saw each other)? Now think about the last time you were talking with a partner or a loved one - did you hug each other? Hold hands? Walk arm-in-arm? We are social creatures, and as such, touch is vital to our social connection.

Now let’s think about a child who struggles with tactile processing, specifically tactile defensiveness. They dislike and may even have adverse reactions to being touched by others (even a familiar friend or loved one). They do not get the same form of social communication that you did in the examples above!

Some signs of tactile processing affecting social communication may be:

  • Poor relationship with caregiver(s)
  • Challenges making and/or keeping friends
  • Playing too rough for the situation
  • Refusing to play with others
  • Challenges with verbal and nonverbal communication

 

Tips and tricks

Now that we’ve gone through some of the challenges with tactile processing, let’s talk about some strategies you can try if your child is struggling in one or more of these areas!

First, empathize! Children will do well when they can, and if your child is experiencing tactile defensiveness, they may be experiencing real pain.

If your child refuses to wear certain clothing, search out different types that he/she will tolerate. Allow your child to wear clothing inside out to avoid the seams! This may mean the difference between having a meltdown and being able to get through the day.

For more ideas on dressing and tactile processing, check out this podcast episode from the All Things Sensory Podcast Episode #171.

If your child refuses to get messy and this is impacting their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities such as finger painting or school projects, provide modifications - instead of using fingers to paint, try Q-tips. Wear gloves while mixing ingredients. That being said, messy play is vital to our sensory system understanding and processing that tactile information.

Try this idea at home to engage your child in more messy play:

  • Grab some washable toys (ideally ones that your child loves) and three buckets/bowls.
  • Fill one bucket with a messy tactile medium such as mud or shaving cream.
  • Fill another bucket with soapy water and the last bucket with clean water.
  • Now, get the toys messy! You may want to go first and show your child how the toys get messy, and then you wash and rinse them!
  • Start slow, lead by example, and have fun!
Picky eater

 If your child refuses to touch and/or eat certain foods (likely a picky eater), it may be beneficial to seek out feeding therapy from a trained therapist. It’s also helpful to rule out any structural or mechanical issues that may be at play, such as poor tongue control or challenges swallowing.

Some ways to engage your child with a variety of foods at home are:  

  • Expose your child to more novel foods. This may include taking him/her to the grocery store and helping to fill up the cart. This may also include your child helping with meal prep and clean-up. Remember, these are also life skills that you’re teaching your child!
  • Play with your food! Yeah, we were all told growing up to stop playing with our food. But if your child refuses a variety of foods, it can be beneficial to play and explore with those foods. If a child can tolerate a particular food texture on their hands, they will be more likely to tolerate it in their mouth!
  • Don’t stop trying. If your child refuses a food once, that doesn't mean they won’t like it! Maybe it looks weird or has a funny smell. Try again the next day! Keep trying! Prepare it in different ways and increase the exposure to that food item.

If your child struggles with personal hygiene tasks, including washing, wiping, nail clipping, hair cuts, etc., there are some strategies you can try.

  • Wash with different types of materials. Maybe the washcloth you’ve been using is too scratchy - find a new texture! The same goes for toilet paper or wipes.
  • If your child refuses personal hygiene tasks because they fear getting their hands messy, allow them to wear gloves.
  • For nail clipping, see if it’s more tolerable in or after a warm bath when the nails are softer. Also, allow your child to watch you clip your nails - often, modeling is the best way to engage your child in a scary task!
  • For strategies on hair cuts, check out this podcast episode from the All Things Sensory Podcast - Episode #169
  • For all personal care tasks, a visual schedule can work wonders! Include specific personal hygiene tasks into the daily schedule with a picture or check-off box. Include specific steps if necessary. For more ideas on visual schedules, check out this podcast episode from the All Things Sensory Podcast - Episode #4

If your child struggles with tactile discrimination, it may be best to play more games that require this skill!

  • Fill a bag with familiar items. Include your child in this process so they can see and touch the items as they are placed in the bag. Take turns reaching into the bag without looking and feeling for a specific item.
  • Start verbally identifying items within the environment based on their size, shape, and texture. Play a game to find items that are similar in size, shape, or texture.
  • Play a blindfold game. One partner is blindfolded while the other is not. The partner who is not blindfolded gently taps the other on a certain body part, such as the right knee. The blindfolded partner must identify where they were tapped. Then, switch roles!

For a child who is struggling with tactile processing and it is significantly impacting their social communication abilities, seek out a training Speech-Language Pathologist and/or Occupational Therapist to help with these social skills.

Additionally, you can seek out a therapist who is trained in the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol. This protocol was designed for individuals with tactile defensiveness. It is not recommended to search for videos on YouTube, as completing the protocol incorrectly can potentially have negative effects. 

 

Final thoughts

If your child struggles with tactile processing, it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with your child. Nothing needs to be fixed. They may just need a little bit of help to process the sensory world a little bit easier.

Seek out others who are on the same journey as you. Seek out trained therapists who can guide you on a more personalized journey. And always remember to empathize with your child! 

Listen to our podcast episode on tactile processing!

 

Check out Our 5 Favorite Tactile Processing Activities for All Ages

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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