Our friend and fellow OT, Courtney Dickinson, is back today with more great information about sensory issues and teens! This week, she’s tackling how teens and older kids process tactile input.
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Do you have a teen that constantly needs to touch everything and maybe everyone?
Does your teen only prefer certain types of clothing or have difficulty dressing appropriately for the weather?
Does he not appear to notice when he is messy or dirty?
Does she avoid or appear over-reactive to grooming activities such as haircuts, showers and nail cutting or dental appointments?
The Tactile System
These are all characteristics that can be related to either an hyper-responsive (overly responsive) or hypo-responsive (under-responsive) tactile system. The tactile system is our largest sensory system and provides us with much needed information to feel comfortable in our own bodies.
Receptors for this system are located on the surface of the skin, so any time contact is made with one’s skin, you are alerting this system.
Deep pressure touch often has a calming and organizing effect on the body while light touch, such as a tickle, tends to be more alerting.
Some people have hyper-responsive (overly responsive) tactile systems, where light touch (and touch in general) is interpreted by the nervous system as a threat. Teens who are hyper-responsive to touch may appear very aggressive, or they may tend to withdraw from situations.
Signs of Being Hyper-sensitive to Tactile Input
-Disliking touch, reacting aggressively to touch or avoiding touch experiences
-Refusing to wear certain types of clothing and/or fabrics
-Disliking socks and/or shoes
-Avoiding standing in lines
-Avoiding crowds and/or crowded places and/or appearing anxious in these settings
-Avoiding certain food textures and/or temperatures, may be a picky eater
On the other hand, teens or individuals who are under-responsive to touch input may appear very “touchy” with others and/or with the objects in their environment. They may have difficulty finding objects using only their hands (i.e. finding a coin in one’s pocket).
Signs of Being Under-responsive to Tactile Input
-Constantly needing to touch and/or fidget
-Overly touchy with others, appearing inappropriate with touch behavior or body space awareness
-Not noticing if others touch them
-Preferring to be barefoot
-Preferring intensity in foods/temperatures/flavors
-Not noticing when face/hands are messy
-Under-responsive to pain/temperature; may not know how they got bruises or cuts
Tactile Strategies for Teens
So, what can we do to help teens who are hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive to touch input? As I’ve mentioned in the previous posts regarding teens and sensory processing, we need to make sure they are invested in this process of helping themselves.
Have your teen fill out our tactile checklist to determine if he is under or over-responsive to touch input. Help him understand how this impacts his life and introduce strategies he can use to make day to day functioning easier.
With tactile input, keep in mind that deep pressure tends to be calming and light touch tends to be alerting. You may want to use deep pressure strategies with your over-sensitive teen.
Strategies for Teens Who Are Hypersensitive to Tactile Input
For teens who are hypersensitive to touch, we want to provide ways to help them calm themselves with consistent, firm tactile input.
-Use heavy blankets at night or to provide calming input at other times
-Weighted lap pads also work well as calming strategies or may be good to use during homework times.
-Have the teen wrap herself tightly in a blanket for calming input
-Try sleeping bags or lycra or bamboo sheets at night
-Create a calming bag with items that can help teens calm their sensory systems during challenging situations like standing close to others while waiting in line or being in a crowd. Include items such as gum or hard candy, a squeeze ball, calming essential oils, etc.
-Work with your teen to help him learn how to explain his sensory needs to others. Give him words to express his need for personal space so he can be prepared for challenging situations like crowded environments.
-Engage in heavy work activities such as lifting weights or theraband exercises, which are more calming activities
-Swimming is an excellent whole body tactile activity to help promote a calm state while providing firm and consistent input to the skin
Strategies for Teens Who Need More Tactile Input
For our under-responsive teens, we want to provide tactile strategies that are more alerting, providing them with the input they require to stay focused and to fulfill their need for additional touch input.
-For showers, try sponges/loofas with different textures
-Have teens help with gardening or cooking tasks at home for extra tactile input
-Try teen yoga classes, art classes, pottery classes, swimming, etc.
-Try textured lotions and creams. Have your teen go to the store and pick out a scent and type of lotion that is appealing.
-Make a fidget kit with items such as rubber bands, squeeze or stress balls, marbles or rocks, paperclips or items that the teen can fidget with inside his pocket without having to remove them.
-Tape different textures (craft paper, sandpaper) onto books and folders or under desks; fidgets often help an under responsive system maintain a just right state of arousal so the teen can focus and attend during class and homework.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful for your teen or teens! If you have any other strategies that have worked for you please share them in the comments below!
Working with teens can be tough and it helps to brainstorm together so we can make everyone’s lives easier and more functional!
Thanks for having me again and I will be back in a few weeks for my final teen blog regarding the oral system.