Therapy Options for Children with Tactile Sensitivity
By Lee Vander Loop
CP Family Network Editor
Many children with cerebral palsy experience some type of sensory impairment. A study by a Spanish university concluded that children with CP showed reduced sensitivity to non-painful stimuli but enhanced sensitivity to painful stimuli compared to healthy individuals. What’s behind these sensitivities and what can parents and caregivers do to help?
The Anatomy of Our Senses
The portion of the brain that responds to touch and other environmental stimulation is called the somatosensory cortex. This system is responsible for multiple sensations including light touch, pain, pressure, and temperature. The somatosensory cortex also assesses the size, shape, and texture of objects based on their feel and helps judge body position using sensory input from the joints, muscle and skin.
Many times, cerebral palsy results in damage to this region of the brain, so it’s not surprising that many children with cerebral palsy experience sensory challenges and difficulties. Data suggest that altered somatosensory brain processing in people with cerebral palsy may cause overstimulation of that portion of the brain. This can result in inappropriate responses to everyday experiences, such as physical affection, play, bathing, and other activities.
Does Your Child Have Tactile Sensitivity?
Every child is sensitive from time to time, but frequent negative reactions to touch may indicate a problem. According to the Family Education Network, signs of tactile sensitivity in children include but are not limited to:
- Becoming upset about being dirty
- Difficulty feeling comfortable in clothing
- Anxiety about walking barefoot
- Avoiding touch
- Unusual sensitivity to pain
- Strong dislike of grooming activities such as nail clipping and hair washing
Children with sensitivities are often irritable and don’t adjust well to changes or new situations. They spend so much energy dealing with the many unpleasant perceptions and sensations they face on a daily basis, they don’t have much left to deal with anything else.
Helping Your Child Cope
If you suspect your child may be experiencing sensory processing difficulties, ask your pediatrician or therapist for an evaluation. If left untreated, tactile sensitivity can seriously interfere with a child’s quality of life.
Children suffering from environmental and tactile sensitivity often benefit from occupational therapy. An occupational therapist will work with a child in a sensory-rich environment to help them learn coping strategies that will allow them to behave in a functional manner in daily life. Occupational therapy for children is designed to be fun but challenging, with the end goal that the child can eat, play with friends, attend school, and participate in other activities that were difficult before therapy.
At Home Activities
There are many activities you can do with your child at home to help them become more comfortable with “unpleasant” sensations. Your child’s occupational therapist will recommend activities appropriate for your child’s unique situation. A few of the most common at-home therapeutic activities include:
The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol
This popular therapy relies on the application of firm and rapid pressure to the arms, hands, back, legs and feet with a specific plastic surgical scrub brush. This is followed by gentle joint compressions to the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, ankles and, sometimes, fingers and feet. A knowledgeable therapist should tell you if this is an appropriate therapy for your child and show you how to conduct it properly.
Deep Pressure/Weighted Products
There are many wearable weighted products on the market designed to provide deep pressure to children suffering from tactile sensitivity. The deep pressure provides important sensory information to the joints and muscles that helps calm sensitive children. Weighted products should be used under the supervision of a pediatrician or therapist.
Many children with tactile sensitivity have an aversion to touching things of a certain texture or “messy” things. Therapists often encourage children to explore these items through play. Messy play can involve play dough, glue, finger paint, sand or other hands-on materials. Ease into messy play slowly. If your child is fearful of the materials, encourage play in a less threatening way. For example, therapists recommend you allow your child to use your hands to start touching the material. Allow him to put objects in and out of the messy materials. As your child becomes more comfortable with the material, slowly encourage him to explore it more. As with any therapy, you should consult your child’s doctor or therapist before beginning messy play at home.
Tactile sensitivity in children with cerebral palsy can have a huge impact on their quality of life. Supervised therapy should be started at an early age to help a child learn to overcome and cope with his negative reactions to daily activities. For more information about tactile sensitivity, talk to your child’s doctor.