Touchy, Feely

It’s the season of love! Everyone shows their love in different ways such as a hug or a kiss. However as Valentine’s Day rolls around the corner, it’s important to remember not everyone will be struck by cupid’s arrow. Some children have difficulty tolerating sensations such as touch that we often associate with this month of love. This aversion to touch sensations is called tactile defensiveness and may present in a child in a variety of ways. 

Our tactile system helps us learn more about the world around us and also serves as a protective system to alert us when touch sensations are dangerous. Children who have tactile defensiveness have trouble processing touch sensations which can lead to an over reaction of their nervous system. They may find everyday touch to be uncomfortable or lead to a fight or flight response (Chu, 1999). 

Ways tactile defensiveness may present in a child: 

  • Avoidance of certain clothing textures
  • Avoidance of having messy hands or engaging in messy play (shaving cream, fingerpaints, sand, etc)
  • Avoidance of being close to other people or children: May not like to stand in lines or be in crowded spaces
  • Avoidance of being picked up, hugged, or cuddled
  • Avoidance of activities of daily living (showering/bathing, finger nail cutting, teeth brushing, hair brushing, diaper changing, washing face)
  • Rub or scratch skin after being touched

If you have noticed your child has difficulty with any of the following, you are not alone and can rely on your occupational therapist to provide customized recommendations to best suit your child’s needs. Below are a list of general recommendations you can use to help your child better process tactile sensations.

Strategies to help your child with tactile defensiveness:

Provide deep pressure:

  • Give your child tight bear hugs or place hands firmly on shoulders or head
  • Ask permission or alert your child before providing these hugs or tactile input

Change environment:

  • Provide enough space for your child when in a crowded area
  • Give them a designated space for sitting with a bunch of children
  • Organize the waiting line to have your child stand first or last or shorten the amount of time they need to be in line
  • Prepare a calming area of your house to allow your child to have time to process sensory meltdowns

Adapt their wardrobe:

  • Find fabrics your child can tolerate such as soft cottons or athletic fabrics
  • Buy tagless clothing
  • Wash new clothing before wearing it to decrease stiffness of fabrics

Participate in heavy work activities that are calming and organizing to the body:

  • Encourage child to carry groceries, participate in chores such as vacuuming or moving laundry baskets
  • Play push/pull activities or jumping games
  • Walk like an animal

We all express our love in different ways, so it is important to be mindful of the cues children provide us. Children learn best through play. As parents, you can create routines to allow opportunities for children to participate in these activities and encourage small steps. Move at your child’s pace and applaud them for small successes they make towards tolerating touch. 

By Katherine Danella, OTD, OTR/L

Reference:

Chu, S. (1999). Tactile defensiveness: Information for parents and professionals. Dyspraxia foundation.

https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Tactile_Defensiveness.pdf

Feeding the Picky Eater 

Eating is a very complex and sometimes challenging task for some of our friends with sensory processing challenges. The looks, smells, textures, and tastes of foods can sometimes be very overwhelming for these kiddos. When it comes to meal times which include foods not on their, sometimes minimal, list of preferred foods, these overwhelming feelings can result in big behaviors or even shutting down completely.  Below are some simple strategies to encourage your child to explore new foods at mealtimes while taking the pressure and stress out of the situation. 

Setting up the Environment 

How and where the child is sitting during mealtimes can be the first consideration in allowing for the greatest success at mealtime. Giving children the appropriate postural support while sitting at the table allows them to focus more on the food presented and less on having to use their muscles to sit. It is ideal to position your child so that they are seated with their hips, knees, and ankles all bent at a 90-degree angle with their feet resting on something. If your child’s feet can not reach the ground while sitting in the chair, try putting a box or stool under their feet to give them something to rest their feet on. If the dining room chair is too deep for them to keep their hips and knees at 90-degrees, try putting a pillow behind their back to help them maintain that upright position. Another key aspect of setting up the optimal environment for mealtimes is to turn off screens. When screens are not present, this allows kids to engage with the foods with all of their senses, building new sensory pathways and flexibility in order to support engaging with more foods in the future. 

Increasing Engagement with Foods 

There are a few different ways to increase your child’s engagement with novel and different foods. If your child has a really limited diet and only eats a few foods, one way to modify their foods and increase engagement is to change the shape or color of their preferred foods. Get your kids involved in changing the color by allowing them to add a drop or two of food coloring or allow them to change the shape of their foods by using a cookie cutter. Another way to increase engagement around food is to talk about the food during mealtime. Talk about the shape of the foods, the color of the foods, the smell of the foods, how they feel about the foods, etc. Talking about the sensory aspects of the foods can support the foundational sensory pathways that support adding new foods to their diet. Serving foods family-style and allowing your child to scoop the amount of food they want on their plate is another way to increase engagement with foods during meal time. 

Presentation of New Foods

When presenting new foods to your child, first take all pressure out of eating it. Provide choices to your child about how they want to interact with the new food. For example, “Do you want the food on your plate or on the napkin next to your plate?” Giving your child options in how they engage with the new foods allows them to feel a little more in control in a situation where their sensory systems often feel out of control. Also, when presenting new foods, encourage your child to play with them. Can your child drive the green bean like a car or make their cracker smash the pea? What about, sneeze the piece of chicken off their head or draw a mustache with the soup? Encouraging play with foods allows the child to experience these foods and exposes their sensory systems to the various sights, textures, and smells of these foods without the pressure of actually eating the novel or non-preferred food. 

Feeding these kiddos with sensory processing challenges can definitely be tricky for all involved. By setting up the environment for success, making small changes to their preferred foods and getting them to engage with foods in novel ways you can support them in growing their food repertoire and hopefully make mealtimes less stressful for everyone.

By Erin Christensen, OTR/L

OT’s Favorite Toys

As the holidays approach, we’re hearing many parents ask for gift recommendations! We
thought we’d put together another gift guide for 2022.

Experience Gifts

Your family could make gingerbread houses, bake a family recipe together, or play some
seasonal music while going for a drive to look at the lights in festive neighborhoods. Consider
packing dinner and going to see a seasonal movie together at the Santee Drive in. A family day
trip out to Julian or to Mt Laguna after a big rain to see the snow is often treasured more than
any gift or gadget! Experience gifts are wonderful ways to share new sensory experiences
together, and you can build in options for flexibility to support your children.

Gross Motor Play

For your busy child who seeks movement, consider obstacle course materials like balance
stones or beams, a mini trampoline, a pop up tunnel, or even a three-wheeled scooter or a
balance bike! If you’ve got outdoor space, perhaps consider a climbing dome or a new swing
or trapeze attachment for your play structure. For items that can be easily packed away, we
love the floor is lava game, parachutes, basketball hoops that hook anywhere, and bean
bags. Your child’s occupational therapist would love to show you at least 4 different exercises
for your child on a child-sized therapy ball. Our other favorite balls for indoor or outdoor play
include soft weighted balls, playground balls, and beach balls or balloons for children still
learning how to catch.

Pretend Play

You name it, they’ve made it: doctor’s kits, cash registers, dress up outfits, tool sets, and
sets with pots, pans, and pretend food. Pretend play enables children to experiment with the
social and emotional roles of life. They take another person’s perspective and enjoy controlling
the narrative. Children tend to develop skills in pretend play which start with familiar, everyday
experiences (sleeping, eating.), expand to less frequent experiences (visiting the doctor, going
on a plane). Children may feel more competent acting out scenes of a movie they’ve seen many
times than pretending to be adults they’ve only encountered a few times like a doctor or even a
grocery clerk. Start with your children’s strengths and interests, and build from there!

Hands-On (Fine Motor and Tactile) Play

From creative activities like drawing or painting to scooping and digging through kinetic sand,
play activities that build up the muscles of the hand are excellent for your child’s development.
We love easels you can put outside for a messy paint project or in the house for drawing on the
whiteboard. Some children may engage better while standing and working at a vertical surface
than seated at a table. We love dot-to-dot or maze books for quiet times. For children who
need extra pizazz with this type of play, we love jumbo chalk along with a water spray bottle
to erase, doodle boards that light up or play music when you draw, scratch paper books, and
of course, you can never go wrong with a fresh batch of playdoh.

Food-Related Play

If you’re looking for tools to bring your child into the kitchen, we’ve got a few favorites! Toddler
towers or kitchen helpers can provide opportunity for your child to get in among the action,
drizzling (or dumping!) ingredients together, using plastic tongs to move foods from one
container to another, or even just small measuring scoops and a sponge to play with soapy
water at the sink (and to keep them busy while you cook!). For children old enough to
participate, consider child-safe kitchen knives, shaped like a real knife but with a plastic/nylon
blade, or perhaps pick out a child-friendly cookbook together.

Constructional Play

To support your child’s skills in problem solving, fine motor control, dexterity, and spatial
awareness, consider constructional play materials. We love wooden block sets, lincoln logs,
marble runs, and of course the tried and true lego (or duplo / mega blocks for younger
children). We like constructional play activities that come with picture cards that provide a visual
goal for what to build, like light bright or k’nex, and we also love toys that encourage children
to ditch the models and create their own ideas. And for the child who loves a challenge,
stacking rocks as well as magnet building tiles may build both caution and resilience.

Social and Emotional Play

We love games and materials that encourage expression of a wide range of emotions, like
wooden eggspressions toys, the Big Feelings Pineapple, or books like Grumpy Monkey or
The Color Monster. Board games are a wonderful gift for family fun. For children who often
end competitive games with a chip on their shoulder, we love cooperative board games like
Mermaid Island, Dinosaur Escape, and Count your Chickens. We also love social
inferencing games like Hedbandz or Charades.


For more ideas on gifts specific to your child, check out our article from 2021! If you’d like ideas
specific to your child, please don’t hesitate to ask your child’s therapist for their input.

By Rachel Marshall, OTR/L

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