Sensory Responsiveness: What's Normal and What Isn't

Tactile Undersensitivity

Children can also be undersensitive, needing more intense touch input to obtain the tactile information they need. A child who is undersensitive to touch may have these difficulties:

  • Sensory exploration. He makes excessive physical contact with people and objects, perhaps even licking them, touching other children too forcefully or inappropriately (such as biting or hitting), fingering all the objects in a store, perhaps to the point of injuring others and breaking things.
  • Emotional and social. She may crave touch to the extent that friends, family, and even strangers become annoyed and upset, scolding her and making her feel unwanted or weird. She might be the baby who constantly needs to be held, or the toddler who hangs on to her mother's leg, craving continual physical contact.
  • Motor. The child who is undersensitive doesn't adequately register tactile input. To get more tactile sensory information, he may need to use more of his skin surface to feel he's made contact with an object. He may use his whole fist to really feel that marker in his hands, or sprawl on the floor to really know that it's beneath him. Because his ability to sense tactile input is impaired, he may have limited skills needed for precise motor tasks such as writing and catching a ball.
  • Cognitive. Because she is distracted by her need to obtain tactile input, she may show attention and learning deficits. For example, if she is too absorbed in checking out how the pencil, paper, desk, and chair feel, she will be unable to concentrate on learning to form letters proficiently, or to put her thoughts together well on paper.
  • Speech-language. If he doesn't process tactile sensations inside his mouth well, he may have trouble mastering the precise movements of the lip and tongue needed to produce articulate speech.
  • Eating. If the skin in and around her mouth is undersensitive, she may drool, and food may pool inside her cheeks or remain in her mouth or on her lips. She might stuff her mouth with too much food to feel that there's something in there, to the point where it poses a choking hazard.
  • Grooming and dressing. He may choose clothing that is, to you, unacceptably tight or loose. He may brush his teeth so hard that he injures his gums; a girl may wear braids so tight and keep them in for so long that it damages her hair. A child may insist on wearing her favorite sneakers even though they're way too small and cause blisters.
All of these examples may ring true for your tactile sensitive child – or not. Your child may not have tactile issues at all and may be struggling instead with her other senses. Whatever the case, if your child is having difficulties handling certain kinds of sensory input, you need to be aware that he may be experiencing problems in many areas of daily life that you may not have imagined.


From Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L and Nancy Peske. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover.

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