Tactile hypersensitivity

What is tactile hypersensitivity?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Tactile hypersensitivity is when information from our sense of touch is received too intensely (both when we touch something and when we are touched). The hypersensitive person may be very sensitive to touch or to the texture of their clothes. The person might refuse to touch certain textures or reliefs, or avoid physical contact with objects or people, like shaking hands. Autistic people have hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities more often, but people without any particular developmental diagnosis can also have these conditions.

What is tactile hypersensitivity?

Tactile hypersensitivity is when there is an overly strong response to tactile stimuli. Certain textures or materials can be uncomfortable or even painful to touch, clothing can be painful to wear, and physical contact with other humans can be a real challenge.

Aversion, pain or disgust to touch

The things that a hypersensitive person finds difficult or painful to touch can vary widely between individuals. The person may react very strongly and refuse all contact with specific textures or objects, to list some examples:

My eldest (Timothée, aged 7) was very excited to welcome our dog. But he was also very annoyed once he was actually there, because he didn't know how to touch it - he couldn’t handle contact with the fur. He ended up putting socks on his hands so he could pet the dog!

Things that touch

Touch is often uncontrolled. It’s not the body that goes towards the sensation, as when we choose to voluntarily touch an object; it’s something that comes to us, and this type of touch can be particularly aggressive for hypersensitive people, even creating distress. For some examples:

Physical contact with people

For people with hypersensitivity, contact with others can be a real challenge, and when you add the fact that the other people also touch them, the level of difficulty is even greater. For some examples of particular types of interactions that might be challenging:

Important

It may be that the autistic person is hypersensitive to one type of touch and not another, for example, being totally fine with handshakes, because it's something they've mastered well and doesn't last long, but having great difficulty with having their shoulder touched.

Symptoms of tactile hypersensitivity

The symptoms of hypersensitivity to touch vary from person to person. You don’t have to have the whole list of symptoms to be hypersensitive, and there are many symptoms that are not on this list.

Consequences of tactile hypersensitivity

The consequences of hypersensitivity to touch vary greatly from one person to another, depending on age, skills, environment and the tools available.

What to do if tactile hypersensitivity is a problem?

You have to be creative and proactive, identifying the problem and finding ways to eliminate or mitigate its effects.

Clothing

Fabrics

Some fabrics are less irritating, like those found in athletic wear, and with some patience it’s also possible to find less uncomfortable garments that can be worn in more chic or formal contexts. Golf polo shirts, for example, are often available in extremely light fabrics for hot weather.

Labels

Many companies now offer the option of detachable labels, but if not, it’s possible to cut them off, making sure there are no square corners left (rounding them off). For some autistic people, this won’t be enough, so the garment will have to be unstitched to remove the label and then sewn back on in exactly the same way.

Embellishments

Watch out for zippers, decorations, embroidery, buttons, stitching and prints that can be felt on the other side.

Texture

A sweater that has been washed often will have a particular texture. A new version of the same garment may not be suitable. Many autistic people and people close to them opt for the solution of doing multiple washes before a garment is worn.

Stock up!

For someone whose clothing challenges use up a lot of energy, buying multiple copies of a comfortable garment is a good strategy.

Physical contact

It’s important to understand that the hypersensitive person’s feelings are real. If they feel pain from physical contact, it’s imperative not to take this lightly, and to avoid any unwanted touching.

Consent

Consent is not reserved for intimate touching. Respecting a child’s choice not to kiss their grandparent will help them understand that they have the right to say no, and that their body belongs to them.

Notify

For some people, being prepared for the physical contact to come may be enough for them to experience it comfortably. It goes without saying that any surprise touches or jump-scares should be avoided, as they can worsen the situation.

Touching differently

It is often the case that autistic people have difficulty with surface touch, but are comfortable with deeper touch. Massage, compression, squeezing and firm hugs can be excellent alternatives.

My son, around 18 months old, would eagerly wipe every kiss off those little cheeks. At first, I was heartbroken. Eventually I sought a diagnosis for him, because there were other little things that I couldn't explain. When I realized what a kiss could do to him, oh lala. After that, I always asked him: Thomas, can I give you a kiss? A hug? And when he says no, I respect his choice. Now he's 9 and loves my kisses and hugs. He knows he can always say no. Love starts with respect!

Desensitization

Play can help desensitize the person to certain stimuli, but care must be taken. Forcing desensitization can increase suffering and place the person in distress. There are desensitization methods that need to be guided and even supervised. Several specialists, such as occupational therapists, can suggest protocols.

Important

In case of distress, or if the solutions put in place don't work, it's imperative to consult someone who specializes in sensory hypersensitivities.