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The Sense of Touch - featured August 31, 2011

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NBThis article is written for the parents of children who have SID and related problems. We publish it here because we know that therapists like to give their client's caregivers as much information as possible.

The Sense of Touch

By: Debbie Woodward

The sense of touch or tactile system is the most primal of all of the senses as it’s the first sensory system to develop in the womb. It’s also the largest sensory system in the body. Often times children with Sensory Integration Dysfunction will have symptoms related to their sense of touch. In order understand the symptoms and and to better relate to your child’s sensory experiences, it is key to have an over all understanding of the tactile system itself.

The skin is the largest sensory organ in the human body but there are also many tactile receptors in the lining of the mouth, throat and digestive system. These receptors pick up various touch sensations and transport them via nerve fibers that are specific only to the tactile system. These sensory signals travel along pathways in the central nervous system until they reach the brain where they are then are then processed. Any neurological miscommunication or “wiring malfunction” along this intricate sensory network will result in a confusing sensory experience.

Tactile Sensations:

There are actually 2 categories of tactile sensation. Each travels along different tracts or nerve cell bundles from tactile receptors up to the brain. Touch carried along the discriminative tract lets you feel differences in textures. If working correctly, discriminate touch tells you are touching a fuzzy teddy bear instead of a smooth plastic doll. Touch localization is how you are able to determine where you are being touched when your eyes are closed. A child who cannot effectively locate the site of tactile input may become distressed or on high alert in an unpredictable environment such as a busy playground. Touch that travels along the protective tract moves rapidly to, as the name implies, protect from harm. Protective touch is what reflexively pulls your hand back when you touch a hot stove.

When operating effectively, protective and discriminative touch provides a child with a sense of comfort and confidence when interacting with objects and other people. On the other hand, when the tactile system isn’t working efficiently, a child may experience tactile defensiveness or other tactile sensitivities. Even though many children may display some of these signs, does your child show them more often or more dramatically? Some of these signs could be:
  • Avoiding being touched
  • Becoming upset because hands, face or clothing are “messy”
  • Avoiding touching substances such food, paint or sand
  • Fussing excessively when dressing
  • Finds clothing uncomfortable, very sensitive to tags, seams and texture of clothing
  • Strongly dislikes grooming activities such as tooth and hair brushing, or having nails trimmed


These are some of the more common symptom that could indicate a problem with the tactile system. Follow the link here for more comprehensive information on tactile defensiveness and sensitivity.

Article Reprinted with Permission of Debbie Woodward

Tags: Article Newsletter 2 September 2011 Sensory Processing Disorder OT Autism Article