All the Feels: Explaining Tactile Processing and Clothing Sensitivity
By: Rachel Lindenauer, OTRL
Have you ever wondered why getting ready in the morning can be such a battle for some children? Does your child end up in tears or run and hide when it is time to put on their clothes? This could be more than just a child misbehaving, but rather a cry for help, telling you that something is not right. It is important to look closely at why these behaviors are happening to discover possible solutions.
Each child responds differently to sensations in their environment. When a child experiences challenges processing, organizing, and using sensory information it can interfere with their ability to fully participate in their everyday tasks. There are many different variations of sensory processing deficits, however, when discussing clothing sensitivity an over response to tactile input is what is impacting their engagement. When a child is over responsive to sensations their brain is unable to inhibit the input efficiently, resulting in overwhelming amounts of information.
First, it is important to understand the sensory system that is activated by clothing. Tactile processing is the ability to take in, organize, and interpret touch sensations. This includes light touch, firm pressure, vibration, pain, and temperature. Our bodies are constantly being touched or touching something (ie: clothes on our bodies, feet touching the floor, picking up food etc.). When registering tactile information, our brains must discern whether the touch is dangerous (ie: hand on a hot stove) or mundane (ie: a friend’s hand on your shoulder) and then your brain responses based on that information (ie: lift your hand off the stove). Children with over responsive systems perceive tactile input as intense and uncomfortable, resulting in a fight or flight response. While putting on a pair of jeans might seem like an easy task, a sensitive child’s mind goes into overdrive, making it impossible to focus on anything else.
Unfortunately, since every child processes sensations differently, it can be difficult to find what works best for their body to successfully process tactile information. The important thing to remember is that these children need opportunities for touch input in order to learn. Some helpful strategies are listed below:
- Light touch is arousing and can be perceived as uncomfortable or disorganizing. Providing deep pressure is a more organizing input to the body and can suppress the sensitivity to light touch. Deep pressure ideas including bear hugs, firm lotion massages, heavy blankets/comforters at night, and swaddle or wrap child in a blanket.
- Some children benefit from clothing that is form fitting or heavy rather than loose and flowing. This goes along side the first principal; a form fitting shirt will provide deeper pressure than a loose top.
- Allow extra time during morning routine can be helpful to minimize upset. While this can be hard with a busy schedule it is beneficial to provide enough time, so the child does not feel rushed on top of the overwhelming feelings they are already experiencing from the sensory input from their clothing.
- Provide choices to give them some control over the routine.
- Use sensory friendly options to minimize the intensity of the input on their bodies. Try different brands and identify which textures and companies work best for your child. See below for sensory options.
- Seek help when necessary. If your child continues to experience significant challenges with tactile processing impeding their ability to engage at home and at school, it is important to seek further assistance. Getting a full sensory evaluation by an occupational therapist can assist with identifying individualized strategies to promote the optimal sensory experience for your child.
Clothing options for sensitive kids
- Bombas socks: a sensory friendly sock that has minimal inseam at the toe.
- Sensory Smart clothing company: This company uses soft material with no tags and seams outside to provide a comfortable fit for kids.
- Lucky and Me: Another sensory friendly company that makes clothing with soft material to ensure comfort for kids with sensitivity.