What might it look like if our touch sense isn’t working well?
When the touch sense doesn’t process the sensory inputs it receives very well there are three typical sensory challenges: sensory reactivity/modulation; sensory discrimination and sensory movement. If you are not familiar with sensory processing, you can read this article for more information – ‘What is Sensory Processing Disorder?’ The rest of this article we will consider how these sensory processing difficulties affect the touch sense.
Differing reactivity to touch sensory inputs
Some people have different tolerance levels to being touched, there are three typical responses. Some children and adults are slower to respond to touch sensory input, which means they need more touch input to understand. Their response could be to seek out extra touch input or they might be slower to notice touch sensory inputs. Other children and adults are sensitive to touch. Their brains find some types of touch overwhelming and in some cases painful. Some common signs of each type of response include:
Touch sensitivity can be called tactile defensiveness by occupational therapists. It is commonly reported by children and adults who have autism. I discuss touch sensitivity further in the article What is tactile defensiveness?
Poor touch discrimination
Touch or tactile discrimination is all about the ‘What’ and ‘Where.’ What is touching me, what does it feel like? Is it hot or cold, dry or sticky, hard or soft, sharp or blunt? What shape is it, is it big or small? Where is it touching me? On the foot or toe? The hand or finger, elbow or arm, forehead or chin, or the back or front?
Touch discrimination gives our bodies all of the detailed information about what we are touching and where we are being touched. It is touch discrimination that allows us to put our hand into our pocket and pull out the £1 coin instead of a 50 pence coin. Our hand can feel the different shape of the coins and pull out the right one. The same is true if you put your hand into your bag to find your keys, your fingers can feel the difference between your keys and your wallet; you can discriminate between the two.
Poor praxis (dyspraxia)
You may be thinking what does the touch sense have to do with dyspraxia? Whilst researching Sensory Integration, Jean Ayres discovered that poor touch discrimination was linked to dyspraxia. In her final model, she included poor ability to locate touch and an inability to recognise object shapes by feeling them as signs of dyspraxia. She thought that because the touch sense helps to create the map of our body (called body schema) within the brain, it was essential for children to learn how to then plan and organise their body movements. You can read more about dyspraxia here.