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We all experience the sense of touch differently but some people can experience difficulty with processing tactile information that they ‘feel’ on a daily basis.

by Yvonne Smith
Autism in Practice Training and Development Officer

Touch

Our tactile sense helps us to interpret information about the sensations that we constantly receive, such as: pressure, texture, movement, vibration, temperature and pain. This tactile information is received through the sensory receptors which are located in our skin. The sense of touch is very important for social development and helps us to assess the environment that we are in. It also provides us with information that we also need for visual perception, body awareness and motor planning.

We all experience the sense of touch differently but some people can experience difficulty with processing tactile information that they ‘feel’ on a daily basis.

Hyper sensitivity

Some people may be hyper-sensitive (over- sensitive/ responsive) to tactile information which may cause them to withdraw from or avoid certain tactile experiences. For example: a simple touch may feel unpleasant or even painful; they may also appear to overreact to a minor physical painful experience.  A person who is hyper-sensitive to tactile input may also avoid getting ‘messy’ and avoid certain activities such as eating certain foods, brushing their teeth, bathing and having a haircut. Wearing certain textures of clothing or clothing with tags in can also present an unpleasant daily challenge.

Hypo sensitivity

Some people may display hypo-sensitivity (under-sensitivity/ responsiveness) to tactile information and may appear to have a high pain threshold. They may need to seek out this tactile stimulus. They may self-injure or chew on everything e.g. inedible items or clothing etc. They may seek out physical touch, enjoy hugs and seek out different textures to give their bodies what they need. This may include smearing faeces or seeking out other various textures in their environment.

A supportive strategy

  • Stop! Look at the behaviours or difficulties that are being displayed. What is it they’re doing? What are they seeking/avoiding? What are they getting from it?
  • Think about how you can support these differences. If behaviours are socially inappropriate, how can we support them in a more socially appropriate way?
  • Implement a sensory diet to support these behaviours. Look for alternative activities which can give similar sensory feedback. For example: if smearing is the behaviour, substitute this for regular, scheduled sessions using items of a similar texture such as Play Doh, salt dough or even jelly. This may help to reduce/ stop smearing behaviours.

Additional support

If you require further support, you can contact your local GP who may refer you to see an Occupational Therapist. They run sensory integration programmes, undertake sensory assessments and can advise on a wide range of sensory equipment to support these sensory differences.

Yvonne Smith works for Autism in Practice, part of north west charity Autism Together. Yvonne and her colleagues train public and private sector organisations in autism awareness.