Tactile Defensiveness

Learn how to identify tactile defensiveness and dysfunction, symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Sensory defensiveness can result in hypersensitivity to certain skin sensations related to touch, temperature, and pain.

Never force a child with signs of tactile sensitivities to touch something he or she does not want to touch. The child may end up avoiding related activities and ultimately develop a fear or apprehension towards certain people, places or objects as a result.

Child hugging his mom with symptoms of tactile defensiveness

I have discovered tactile defensiveness to often be present in children diagnosed with autism. It's possible that a sensory processing disorder may be a contributing underlying condition. However, because there are very little tests, studies and doctors to properly diagnose the condition, parents are left with the possibility of a misdiagnosis. Tactile Defensiveness has also been observed in about 60-90% of boys diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome.

Unfortunately, because this is often a misdiagnosed condition, it is not always obvious that a child’s behavior is directly influenced by the body’s inability to properly interpret sensory input. As a result, the child is punished by individuals in his or her life that are unaware of what he or she is experiencing. This can lead to a child becoming depressed and withdrawn.

Some signs may include:

• Difficulty wearing clothing made of itchy or rough material
• Requests diaper changes immediately or very fussy after going in his or her diaper
• Does not like unexpected touch, kisses, or cuddles
• Avoids big crowds or rooms full of people
• Prefers to be hugged
• Doesn’t like to be dirty or engage in messy play
• Very ticklish
• Toe walking
• Does not like to have teeth brushed, face washed, hair brushed, or nails cut
Picky Eaters

Treatment for Tactile Defensiveness

SPD treatment should involve the consultation of an occupational therapist. Some therapies may include:

• Using social stories to help prepare children for stimuli associated with certain situations and events.
• Desensitization procedures
• Deep pressure massage
• The use of weighted blankets
• Brushing on the arms and legs with a soft bristle or knobble sensory brush
• Playing with texture materials, such as play do, goo yuck, or slime
• Playing with sensory tables filled with varying temperatures of water, beans, rice, or sand.
• Massages with lotion
• Finger Painting
• Vibrating toys or massagers

It is important to note that just because your child may have some of the symptoms it does not mean he or she necessarily has a sensory disorder. If you are concerned, talk to your pediatrictian about the symptoms or ask to be referred to a specialist.

Sometimes, as a result of tactile defensiveness, there can be frequent temper tantrums or aggressive behavior when in certain environments or when in contact with undesirable stimuli. Check out the behavior help section for additional tips on prevention and ways to respond.

Additional recommended pages:

Sensory Modulation Disorder (subtype of SPD)
Additional Symptoms for Sensory Disorders
Sensory Seeking
Vestibular Dysfunction
Proprioceptive Dysfunction
Tactile Dysfunction - underresponsivity and/or sensory seeking
Oral Defensiveness
Olfactory Dysfunction
Auditory Dysfunction


1. Sensory Processing Disorders. Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist. www.sensory-processing-disorders.com. 1-16-10.

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