Introduction to Tactile
This is often the sense that non-autistic people have the most difficulty understanding, and it can be very difficult for an autistic person to find strategies to cope with tactile sensory problems. It can be almost impossible to stop all tactile input and short of having a giant hamster ball there aren’t many resources (such as sunglasses for visual; ear plugs for audio) that can outright prevent the sensory input.
The tactile system allows us to feel things around us, and it is located all over our bodies. For people without sensory processing disorders, it is easy enough to ignore the feeling of clothes on their body unless someone mentions it. For those with sensory processing disorder, it can be very difficult to ignore any tactile input. Some people find gentle touch painful, others find it impossible to wear certain types of clothing material, or to have hems or labels in their clothing. At the other end of the sensitivity spectrum, some will not notice tactile input so can bump into things or people without realising.
All kinds of touch can be overwhelming, and in particular there can be pain responses due to the fact that light touch is carried on the same neural pathway as pain. Some things you might see in people who are hyper-tactile are:
- Pulling away from touch, recoiling arms and hands from textures.
- Large personal space.
- Dislikes getting messy or handling food without utensils.
- Reacts negatively to being approached from behind.
- May flinch from physical contact.
- Can misinterpret accidental gentle touch (someone brushing past them in a corridor) as a physical attack because to them it hurt.
This is the person who will go out of their way to seek the tactile input that the hyper-tactile person desperately tries to avoid. It does not register that they have received tactile cues, and there is a need to touch everything.
- Hangs on adults.
- Wiggles under things like mattresses, or gym mats.
- Crashes into people or surroundings.
- Touches everything.
- Doesn’t react to pain – this means that you will need to check they are alright yourself if they fall over as they may not react to pain.
- May bite own skin.
Difficult to manage?
It can be, and those who are hyper-tactile can find everyday life very challenging, depending on how sensitive their tactile processing is. This is not to say that the other senses cannot make day-to-day life difficult, but to provide some examples hypersensitivity can mean that they cannot stand to be touched, interpreting it as pain; or will not allow their hair to be brushed. It can also mean that they cannot go outside when there is rain or wind or snow because it causes them too much pain to feel it against their skin, or that they are in constant pain when they are wearing clothes.
This makes it one of the most difficult senses to help regulate and accommodate – taking just one of those examples, we cannot stop the weather and so the only way to avoid that would be to stay inside. This is perhaps why Occupational Therapists have done a lot of work into finding strategies that help people cope and whilst there aren’t resources to block out tactile input, there are things that help.
Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such