The sticky-icky start of it all

I remember picking my son up from his preschool Sunday school class. All the children came out of the classroom proudly holding papers with bright handprints in red, yellow and green finger paints.  The teacher escorted my son out and said apologetically, “He couldn’t handle getting paint on his hands so…“

I looked down at his paper and saw an outline of his hands drawn with pen. It was the first of many finger painting projects that he completed with a Popsicle stick, paintbrush, or just ball point pen.

Over time I began to see a pattern to what he called, “icky” textures- mud, sand, glue, liquid soap, bubble liquid, snow. He also didn’t want milk in his cereal or sauce on his spaghetti, and hated cheese in all forms but especially melted.  He couldn’t bear to have a haircut. He was also, serious, bright, and a worrywart. He lined up the cans and boxes in my cupboards so the labels faced the same way, and lined up his Duplo blocks by color in straight lines. And toys that were sticky, splashy, slimy and sandy? Those were a definite NO!

The phrase “on the spectrum” had never come my way. Touch sensitivity/tactile defensiveness, are terms I’d never heard.   But…

A few years later, my second son was born. My baby didn’t want to be rocked or held to go to sleep. As he grew, he also became a fussy eater with texture issues-lots of them! And this really adorable, round cheeked cherub couldn’t bear hugs. When he saw someone reach to hug him, he would stop in his tracks, turn around, and slowly back toward them to endure it.

And mommy makes 3

While trying to understand my children, I began to examine myself. I’d never thought much about it, but I don’t like “slippery” or “scratchy” clothing. I also don’t like to be hugged, especially from behind. And tickling is NEVER fun.  

I don’t enjoy the things other women do. Mani-Pedi’s are my idea of hell. Massages are worse. At times even heat and cold can set my teeth on edge. 

And horror of horrors, I disliked breastfeeding my babies, and was uncomfortable sleeping next to my husband because I might run into him in the night. But I’d never pieced this together. I just thought I was weird. Until I met my children. They weren’t weird. They were Amazing! Unique! And yes Picky! And Opinionated!

And there had to be others like us.

It gets on our nerves

So what is this thing we call touch sensitivity or tactile defensiveness? And even more important, how can we help a touch sensitive person feel comfortable in their skin?

Our skin is full of tiny nerve endings that give information to our body.  Nerve endings do this by carrying the information to the spinal cord, which sends messages to the brain where the feeling is registered.

When you hold your hand close to a fire, you feel heat. That is the nerve endings in your hand passing the information to your brain to let it know there is heat. The nerve endings will let your brain know if your hand is warm, hot or burnt from touching the fire by the intensity of the message it sends. Your brain will then send back a message telling your hand to enjoy the heat, or move away,or Yikes! Jump up and get some ice!

But for someone who is touch sensitive, the message sent to the brain when experiencing texture or touch is often pain and discomfort. This elicits a response from the brain which can vary in range from setting the teeth on edge, to the creepy-crawlies,  to nausea, to a flight response.

For instance, the feeling most people get from someone scratching a chalkboard, is the feeling I get from biting into a Popsicle. Someone patting my head is similar in feel to someone hitting me on the head with a book.

Know your triggers

Here are some other ways people exhibit tactile sensitivity:

  • Being bothered by the feeling of certain fabrics or clothing textures
  • Disliking socks, especially the seams and has a preference for the position of sock seams
  • Difficulty with wearing shoes
  • Avoidance of messy textures such as finger paint, glue and playdough; and sometimes dry textures like sand
  • Sensitivity or fussiness with food textures, including avoidance of mixed textures (e.g. lasagna) or foods with some lumps (e.g. yogurt with fruit pieces)
  • Aversion to touch such as hugs and/or kisses (and might rub away kisses)
  • Difficulty with teeth brushing
  • Sensory defensiveness with haircuts and hair brushing
  • Sensitivity to touch when cutting finger or toe nails
  • Dislikes the feeling of or bothered by clothing tags

We shall overcome

So, what can be done to help a touch sensitive person cope with the nerve overload they get each day?

Like so many things, the place to start is to listen to them. Just like my children, each person has different things that are “triggers”. It may be food, clothing, brush of a hand, but whatever it is, let them tell you.

Next, allow them to say “No, thank you” when possible. If they can’t wear socks with seams, get socks without. If they can’t bear socks at all-really, how big of a deal are socks anyway?

And if there is an unavoidable trigger?  Deep touch pressure is one help. Often the nerve signals for soft touches are overwhelming but the deeper, harder touch is felt as a single message sent to the brain rather than many small ones.  This is why weighted blankets and hard toothbrushes can actually help.

Also, let them help make the decision of how to get through it. Picking out their own hard or soft toothbrush or hairbrush, or cutting off the tags on their shirts, can give them a sense of being able to exert some control over those nerve responses.

And sometimes the solutions they come up with might surprise you.  

For instance, the little old lady at church who greeted my cute cherub with a hug? He came up with the “back into it slowly” idea himself. Could I have intervened? Yes. But letting him find his own solution did the trick, empowered him, and met both their needs. 

Ready for some good news? It gets better with time. Whether it’s sluggish nerve responses, or just becoming used to or predicting the response to the triggers, most people have less severe responses to nerve overload as they age

The unpleasant things of life become the things of life, if given enough time and repetition. 

Now there’s a thought to stitch on a pillow!