Touch Processing: Getting kids to feel comfortable in their own skin- Blog #3

two hands holding touch processing

I have heard parents say “Oh, my kid is not sensory”. They have a family member who has autism and they think that a kid with sensory problems would have more obvious issues.

Sensory processing problems are not always overt. We often cannot tell how much someone is exerting to manage daily activities. 

Sensory processing problems are not always overt. We often cannot tell how much someone is exerting to manage daily activities.

I know that in regards to touch processing I have sensitivities that affect my day to day experience. Knowing more about myself I make sure to be mindful about feeling overwhelmed about touch and to get enough of it as well.  

Children may not be able to do the same.

For example, one of the adults in a continuing education class said of his difficulties with managing daily encounters with food and clothing that irritated his sensory system: “I didn’t realize when I was 15/16 how much I had to manage the stress of my physical life.” He continued to say “I had to tell myself not to ‘freak out.’”

With the quarantine and reduced social contact with their peers, many children will feel the effects of reduced positive touch in their lives.

Some parents feel that their children are ill-equipped to return to the intense sensory experience of school. There’s a concern from parents that their children will be overwhelmed or have social difficulties.

baby, tears, portrait

What difficulties with touch processing look like:

Often children who have tactile (touch) processing difficulties come into therapy with certain commonalities, such as:

  •   particular or limited choices around clothing
  •   having meltdowns over small irritations such as wet clothes
  •   being overly “physical” with others
  •   being reactive to unexpected touch
  •   having physically aggressive episodes towards others or themselves (e.g. hitting themselves when frustrated)
  •   picky eaters
  •   struggling with hair washing and brushing
  •   take a very long time to manage basic tasks such as dressing
  •   pulling away from touch, kisses, hugs
  •   rubbing their skin after it was touched

Just a few of these behaviors may be present in children who experience difficulties with touch processing.

As an example, I worked with one kid who burst into tears when we were blowing bubbles and his shirt sleeve got wet. Other kids are difficult to dress due to obsession with certain types of clothing. Socks have to be just right or the child is attached to one item of clothing. Getting them to wear anything else is a struggle. They wear long sleeves in the heat of summer.

The way these children process touch information is often behind these behaviors.  

Common Touch Processing Issues:

Take the kid who is fine when with adults but turns into a different kid with other kids.  A common problem is that this child gets very physical and even aggressive when in a group (at school for instance).

Imagine: a child starts his day at school already a little uncomfortable that he cannot wear his comfy pajamas, then he gets accidentally bumped into when going to class or has an encounter with a texture that makes him uncomfortable when at arts and crafts. Soon these experiences pile onto each other. Finally, he is like a cup that has been overfilled. The result can be a meltdown or hurting others.

 When a child’s willpower is exhausted, often the brainstem takes over. The term “lizard brain” aptly describes it. The brainstem is responsible for keeping you alive. The result is often a fight, flight, freeze response.  

Why? Poor ability to determine the nature of the touch continues to trigger a protective response.

mosquito, malaria, gnat


  1. A bug landing on our skin or piece of hair tickles you
  2. You quickly brush off where you were touched.

Imagine if this protective response was constantly getting triggered. What if you only knew you were touched but you did not know from where? No wonder why some of our kids with tactile processing difficulties get edgy even aggressive.


When a child’s nervous system is not certain about the nature or qualities of touch, they lack the sense of touch discrimination. 

Discrimination allows us to identify the “when, what, where, how” qualities of something.

For touch input, discrimination allows us to know:

  • Is something firm or soft?
  • Is it dry or wet?
  • Is it smooth or prickly?
  • Does it have edges or is it round?

Often our children with poor touch discrimination rely on more dominant senses such as vision to compensate. These kids may not be able to tell the difference between a button and a coin or a pencil vs. a crayon. These kids may also be very nervous or uncomfortable when their vision is taken away with a blindfold or when in the dark.

Hand holding coins tactile discrimination

Tips for Touch Processing:

  1. Validate their feelings: One thing I have changed as a therapist is how I can acknowledge their feelings. Do NOT downplay their experience. Instead of saying “it’s not that bad,” acknowledge them if they feel uncomfortable, “You are doing great trying something new.” I am guilty of downplaying and now understand that it is very confusing when you tell someone that their experience is not true, causing them to doubt their senses and judgement.

    To paraphrase a woman who wrote about this online, “I would rather have someone teach me to open a window rather than tell me that something did not smell bad.”

    As trusted adults in their lives, we can help children expand what they are comfortable with without diminishing their experience.
  2. Make sure they can see you: for instance by approaching them from their front before touching them. When a child can see you, they are more able to use their vision and know that they are safe.
  1. Don’t tickle please: you want to establish a relationship of trust where your child can expand their comfort zone with you on their side. For kids with sensory processing difficulties, it can be difficult to see when they have stopped being okay with the activity. (If it is something you do to bond with your kid, don’t feel bad, but make sure to stop when they say stop). 
  2. Notice signs of overwhelm– There are physical signs of sensory system overwhelm. These include hiccups, flush face, sweating, pupil dilation, high-pitched (nervous sounding) laughter. Even if a child is having fun these are signs that it would be good to slow down and have deep pressure touch or a  break.

Activities for Touch Discrimination

Warm up the body with deep pressure touch (DPT). See hand hugs and pillow squish activities in the blog on Deep pressure touch. They are good for getting the system ready for new experiences as long as they are already tolerated.  If they get dysregulated with the activities below, use pillow crash or a deep pressure touch activity that you know your child already enjoys or simply take a break.

two hands on a forearm on table

Touch Discrimination Games

Pillowcase game. Put a toy inside a pillowcase or any non-translucent bag. It can be fun if the toy makes noises or lights up for younger kids. Have your child put their hand inside and describe what they feel without looking. Is it hard, soft, or fuzzy? Does it have corners or is it round?

Pillowcase Matching. Put two pairs of objects in a pillowcase and have your kid pull out two objects that are the same without looking.

hands in pillowcase touch processing activity

Sorting using touch only. Use blindfold or cardboard with hole cutouts. Place containers or bowls with at least one toy/object in each container. The more different the objects are the easier it is. Make it more difficult by decreasing the size and shape difference. Increase the sensory experience by using wet food such as sorting peas and carrots.

hands in cardboard cutout sorting objects

Dry bin sorting. Do this activity in a dry bin with beans or rice. The difficulties increase as you mix the textures.

writing on back touch processing game

Guess the drawing. Have pencil and paper ready. Use your finger and draw a shape on your kid’s hand or forearm. Make sure they can’t see what you are drawing. Have them draw what they think you are drawing.

  • Put a paper on their back and draw. While you make marks or a picture, your kid also tries to guess what you are drawing. It is fun to compare the pictures. 
  • Kids love doing the drawing on an adult, especially if they are less accepting of touch they are not in control of. 

The main takeaway is to have fun and compassionately expand your children’s comfort zone. Don’t be in a rush. Having positive experiences of connecting to their own bodies fosters new brain connections that helps children feel safe and comfortable in their own skin. 

Let me know if you tried any of these activities do tell me if you made new variations of the games!