Our sense of touch plays a huge role in our everyday lives. You feel the cold water running out of the tap as you brush your teeth each morning. Your feet sense the ice-cold tile as you step out of steaming hot shower. Your fingers sense the warm, fuzzy texture of the wool sweater you pull from the coat hanger.
We are exposed to thousands of textures and feelings from your fingers and toes alone each day. Your sense of touch processes these receptors and sends the information to the brain so your body can make a decision on how to proceed. Your brain triggers the hand to turn the faucet to warm
water so it’s not so cold. You step quickly onto the bath rug to keep your feet from feeling the ice cold tile floor. You put on an undershirt so the wool sweater doesn’t itch you throughout the day.
Your body’s largest organ plays a huge role in processing the sense of touch. Our skin is made up of cells that communicate to sensory nerve receptors within the skin and then to nerve terminals that reach the brain for processing. The brain then determines whether the sense of touch is innocuous, or harmless, or noxious – harmful.
For most of us, innocuous touch doesn’t phase us. The sensation of a harmless touch either feels good, has no effect on us, or could be negative in a way but may still go unnoticed. To those with Autism, ADHD, PTSD, Anxiety, or another sensory processing disorder, innocuous touch can spur a behavior change, panic, rage, depression, or fear.
The touch of the cold water running out of the bathroom faucet could scare someone who has a sensory processing disorder and it could make them feel like they experienced a noxious touch without having the dangerous effects because frankly, the cold water is not dangerous at all. There is a disconnect somewhere between the cells in the skin and the brain, or from the brain back to the cells where the message on how to react never made it.
This is a clear case of sensory processing disorder (SPD). Typically this type of disorder can be treated and young children can grow out of it, but it depends on what the doctor diagnoses the patient with. PTSD, on the other hand, is another sensory processing disorder that is triggered by a [usually horrific] life event. Treatment for this type of diagnosis is common but may be life-long.
Sensory Integration Therapy
Treatments that address the sense of touch are referred to as sensory integration therapy. In this case of touch specifically, the doctor or
occupational therapist gradually introduces a sensory diet to the patient. The sensory diet controls what the person is exposed to via their senses. The exposures are observed, analyzed, and adjusted based on the patient’s behavior and positive experience.
For example, if someone has problems with certain food textures like pudding, the therapist may introduce the person to jello, the flesh of an orange, or mashed potatoes. The texture in the mouth is not the same as pudding but has similar properties. If one or all of the introduced foods are positively received, a gradual amount of pudding may be mixed in with those foods to introduce the pudding texture to the patient. It could become a learned texture and they may be able to overcome their texture issue.
If the slightest texture the of pudding is sensed and has a negative outcome, that specific portion of the sensory diet may have failed and cannot be addressed at that time. This does not mean other senses cannot be helped however.
Deep Pressure Touch
Many doctors turn to deep pressure therapy as a portion of one’s sensory diet. Deep pressure massages or touching stimulates the cells and nerves on and under the skin. The deep pressure massaging is perceived as relaxing from the brain and can calm someone down who is experiencing a negative reaction to an innocuous touch. A simple hug from a loved one is an example of deep pressure touch. Other examples include:
-a “Bear” Hug from a loved one
-Wrapping yourself in a blanket
-The weight from a weighted blanket
-Rolling a therapy ball
-Sensory Pea Pod furniture or bean bags
Weighted Anxiety Blankets
Weighted blankets are becoming more and more popular among the sensory processing community. Not only do they apply deep pressure stimulation to the nerves and brain, but most manufacturers are designing them with soft suede or fleece fabrics in order to stimulate the sense of touch by the user. The soft fabric introduces the user to an innocuous touch that can be associated with positive feelings and emotions. It also provides a surface for the user to caress and relieve anxiety and stress as they gently caress the blanket.
Who knew how much innocusou or noxious touching impacted our reflexes or behaviors? Whether or not you have a sensory processing disorder, or know someone that does, everyone should be able to positively benefit from the amazing textures and feels we can experience through our sense of touch. Read more on sensory processing and sensory integration.