What does it mean to be tactile defensive?
Ameer (not his real name) is a bright yet intense young man. He attends a special school for young people with Autism.
Ameer is frequently highly anxious. He feels compelled to perform repetitive tics, such as jumping or shouting out. Things get especially difficult if the classroom is noisy or he gets interrupted in what he is trying to do.
Ameer does not like changing activities and needs lots of preparation to do this. His class teacher has noticed that he is not keen to touch certain items. He asked for gloves when handed a ball which had a bobbly surface. Ameer hates being accidentally nudged or jolted and hits out if this happens. His Mum has had to cut the labels out of his clothes.
What's so special about this Happy Senso? Isn't it just like standard shaving foam?
Ameer has started to build up a trusting relationship with his occupational therapist. He attends weekly sessions in the therapy room and now feels secure enough to try out more complex unfamiliar movements (praxis) His tics have reduced significantly.
In one session, after bouncing on a space hopper, he came to rest near the happy senso gel. This gel is cool to touch, has a fragrance and CRACKLES! If you rub your hands, it crackles louder.
Ameer's curiosity got the better of his fear. By the end of the session, he had made a huge pie with his hands in the gel, he laughed and laughed. He smelt it, he listened to it, he rubbed it in his hands. The therapist ended the session wearing what was left of it!
What’s going on here – How are touch and anxiety linked?
Here’s just a little bit of Neuroscience, folks
When we sense something by touch, the nerve signal travels up to the brain via neural pathways or tracts. Once in the brain, the signal is interpreted so that an appropriate response can be made.
It’s handy to understand that there are two major tracts which carry different types of touch messages to the brain:
- Light touch, pain and temperature
- Deep pressure touch and information about how the muscles are moving (called proprioception)
Our sensitivity to touch is one of the earliest senses to develop in utero. Touch sensation can help us to calm and reassure (think about skin to skin contact with new babies for example)
Light touch, pain and temperature:
The tract that carries light touch goes to the part of the brain which also regulates alertness, attention, mood and excitability. It’s a bit like a junction box, really. Light touch can be exciting, but also can trigger the “fight or flight” response.
This may be why Ameer is oversensitive to touch and feels anxious and over responds to touch sensation. This is called tactile defensiveness
Deep pressure touch and proprioception:
The tract that carries deep pressure touch and proprioceptive messages has more to do with learning how to use our hands by touch (tactile discrimination) This tract bypasses the emotion and excitability junction box. Inputs from this tract are understood to help calm and decrease anxiety.
Ameer had been calmed by bouncing on the space hopper. He then felt ready to explore the multi-sensory gel in a playful way. Rubbing his hands gave deep pressure inputs and using smell and hearing together kept his attention and focus. Fun dispels anxiety too!
Every child is different. You will need to have a good understanding of the sensory needs and the individual circumstances of your child to know whether Happy Senso is right for them.