The brain’s most primitive task is to protect us and keep us safe. Only when a child is assured they are safe is it possible for the brain’s hemispheres and prefrontal cortex areas to develop fully.
Our tactile sense is one of the most important for proper development and integration of the nervous system, motor responses, emotions and overall development.
Who knew that an altered tactile system can have effects on emotional regulation, body awareness, fine motor control, social interactions, and feeling safe. When our tactile system is dysfunctional (either hyper- or hypo-sensitive) the nervous system remains in a place of protection — waiting to determine if any and every situation is safe or dangerous. When our children live in a place of constant stress they are less likely to enjoy engaging in new activities, being in social situations, and developing to their full potential.
Integrating the tactile system (which includes TEN different sensory receptors) helps to optimize the brain stem and subcortical brain structures, relax defenses from the reflex system, and open the ability to feel trust and safety in order for healthy development to happen.
Typically therapists look one dimensionally at the tactile system. Is your child hypersensitive to their clothing or getting hair brushed, nails clipped? Is your child hypersensitive to pain, cold, or warmth? But we must also look at how the stretch receptors, mechanoreceptors, free nerve endings and others interact with our nervous system. Are they giving the right signals? How does that affect our bodies movements and ability to interact with our environment?
If your child has seen an Occupational Therapist for anything, I guarantee you have done the Sensory Profile. Do you remember the questions about the tactile system? They are typically questions about sensitivity to clothing, grass, or water. They also ask if your child likes hugs?
Although these are great beginner questions to ask about the tactile system we must look even further to how the tactile hyper- and hypo-sensitives in all receptors effect the child’s ability to interact with their environment. A child may be able to tolerate most tactile information with zero problems, but when it comes to specific pressure they pull inwards or needs very deep pressure. Both instances demonstrate a dysfunctional neuro-tactile system.
When the tactile system is dysfunctional (either hyper- or hypo- or a combination) the child will demonstrate challenges with all sensory areas, even vestibular sense, proprioceptive sense, and social interactions. How they move when they are touched can give us insights into which primitive reflexes are still unintegrated and need attention. Our brain wants to keep us safe. When the brain feels threatened, through touch, it will stop at nothing to pull the body into a fetal, flexed position for protection.
Working on the tactile system is an important first step before setting the stage for safe, comfortable growth between the therapist & child.