By Amanda Morin
Kids with sensory processing issues can be over- or undersensitive to touch. This can make everything from eating foods with various textures to showering a challenge. Here are some ways to help your child cope with tactile sensitivity.
When you need to touch your child, make sure he sees you coming and that you tell him before you do anything. For instance, try saying things like, “I need to wash your hair. I’m going to drizzle water on your head first.”
It can be hard not to feel rejected if your child doesn’t like casual hugs or having his hair stroked. But you might just have to find a different “in” to being affectionate. Check with your child—maybe a firm squeeze on the shoulder or a “pinky promise” can be your special way to say “I love you.”
Physical contact can be a stressor for kids with tactile sensitivity. Teach your child it’s OK to set boundaries with friends and relatives. You can begin by modeling how to say it. For instance, “I’m not a big hugger, but I’m so glad to see you, Aunt Mabel!”
If your child underreacts to touch, he may not recognize pain as you would expect. Point out events that are typically painful (a bumped head or minor burn). Explain that he should pay attention to them and tell an adult when they occur. (You can also point out situations on TV or in real life when a child reacts to pain.)
Undersensitive kids also need to be taught about situations they may not perceive as dangerous because they don’t “feel” them. That includes bitter cold weather and blazing heat.
If your child has trouble sleeping at night, consider adding a few more blankets. The extra weight can provide the deep pressure some kids need for their bodies to be calmer.
You can also purchase weighted blankets. They’re costly, but they provide the pressure without the added heat of extra covers.
When your child is doing things that use his muscles to push, pull, climb, carry or lift, occupational therapists call it “heavy work.” For kids who are undersensitive to touch, it can help calm and organize the body.
Some chores like vacuuming and activities like riding a bike, pushing a shopping cart, carrying groceries and even climbing playground equipment are all examples of heavy work.
Kids who are oversensitive to touch can struggle with the feel of certain fabrics. They may also have trouble transitioning from long sleeves to short sleeves or from pants to shorts.
Consider letting your child wear a sweatshirt over a short-sleeved shirt and investing in clothes like zip-leg pants. When warmer weather comes around, he only has to get used to the feel of bare arms and legs. He’s not adjusting to the feel of new collars or waistbands, too.
Did you find a pair of pants, texture of tights or type of shoe your child wears with ease? Make the most of it! Wearing the same outfit in many different colors makes up in comfort for what it might lack in style. And think about buying the next size up, too.
Here are more clothing solutions for kids with sensory processing issues.
It’s tempting to wipe a smudge off your child’s face or brush the lint off his shirt. But if he’s sensitive to touch, it may be better to point out what’s amiss and have him do it himself.
You may need to talk a younger child through fixing it. For instance, “You have some chocolate on your chin. The napkin didn’t clean it off. Why don’t you go use a wet washcloth to wipe it off?”
Does your child refuse to eat certain foods? It may be the texture, not the taste. You may not be able to notice differences in texture, but your child may. If he doesn’t like smooth peanut butter, he may happily eat the crunchy kind. It’s also possible your child will eat yogurt (or another new food), but can only tolerate the texture of a particular brand and flavor.
Your child might get upset if different food textures combine in his mouth. But that doesn’t mean you always have to make him a separate dish. Consider buying divided plates to separate foods. You can also serve casserole ingredients individually. For instance, if you’re making shepherd’s pie, set aside some of the meat, mashed potatoes and vegetables before you assemble the pie.
For some hypersensitive kids, bath time struggles aren’t over getting clean, but over drying off. Your child’s towel may be too soft or too rough for his comfort. Consider taking him shopping to test out the feel of different types of towels and washcloths. He can choose ones that he’s comfortable using.
Does your child shy away from touching sticky, slimy or gooey things? He doesn’t have to avoid art projects. Stock up on large glue sticks or glue dots instead of squeeze glue. You can also invest in paint markers or sponge-tip squeeze bottles, instead of brush or finger paints.
In the meantime, if your child is working with an occupational therapist, you can come up with a plan to phase in traditional art supplies that aren’t yet comfortable for your child.
Some kids will gravitate toward gooey and sticky instead of avoiding it. You can create sensory bins for your child to play with. Fill a small plastic bin with things like sand, rice, beans, shaving cream or water, and add small toys. It can help contain the mess while meeting your child’s sensory needs.
Your child may also fiddle with objects. Give him sensory-friendly fidgets (such as a stress or Koosh ball, Silly Putty or rubber bands). He can carry a fidget in his pocket and won’t bother other people’s things.
You might come across these terms as you learn more about sensory processing issues (sometimes called “sensory processing disorder”). Understanding terminology can make it easier to talk to teachers, doctors and specialists about sensory processing issues.
Kids with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive to taste and smells, from cooking spices to minty toothpastes to scented shampoos. An occupational therapist can help your child develop coping skills. There are also activities you can do to help at home.
Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.
Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.
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