By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA
Our Sense of Touch
Tactile processing is our ability to sense and interpret information from our environment through our sense of touch. Information from our tactile system allows us to gauge everyday sensations such as light touch, temperature, vibration, pressure, or pain.
Tactile defensiveness is a term used to describe an individual who is hypersensitive to touch. As occupational therapists (OTs), this is something we come across often on our caseloads. Sensitivity to tactile stimuli can interfere greatly with a child’s functional, day-to-day activities. It can impact one’s ability to tolerate certain types of clothing, perform self-care tasks (bathing, toothbrushing, hair brushing), or eat a range of foods. Another activity that may cause difficulty in the summer months is tolerating the feeling of sunscreen on the body. While we want our families to enjoy the beach, the pool, or spend time outdoors, this task can be daunting for tactile-sensitive kids. The anticipation of this event alone may elicit an aversive response, or, in many cases, the child may begin avoiding the task altogether.
(Movement Matters, 2020).
The Role of OT
Occupational therapists help children and families participate in meaningful daily activities. When a child is sensitive to certain stimuli, the therapist will provide an environment where controlled and guided exposure can take place. This process allows for ongoing positive interaction with the medium, often through play-based activities. The therapist can help the family find alternative solutions and to identify positive coping mechanisms that allow the individual to be successful in the given task.
Tactile Defensiveness and the Beach
As a pediatric occupational therapist, a question that often comes up in the summer months is: “What do I do if my child is having trouble tolerating the feeling of sunscreen on his skin?” The first thing you can do is consider the sensory properties of the sunscreen. Is it lotion? Is it thick? Sticky? Clumpy? Smooth? Does it absorb quickly, or does it stay on the skin? Is it greasy? Does it have a certain smell to it? Stick, spray, and powder options are great alternatives for children who may be sensitive to some of the less desirable lotions. Here are some of the most recommended, sensory-friendly sunscreen options:
- Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Stick *
- Neutrogena Dry Touch Ultra Sheer Stick *
- Aveeno Baby Face stick sunscreen
- Babo Botanicals Sheer Zinc Spray
- Banana Boat Light as Air
Powder-based options – primarily for the face
- Brush on Block Translucent Mineral Powder Sunscreen
- Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield
- Neutrogena Dry Touch Ultra Sheer *
- Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen
- Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence
(Evolution, 2021; No Author, 2018).
As an occupational therapist, I am always thinking of other ways to adapt activities to make them easier for my clients. Beyond changing the actual sunscreen, here are some more ways to help make protection from the sun easier for our kids.
- Coolibar Clothing – Limit the amount of skin that is exposed directly to the sun using protective clothing. This brand offers sun protective clothing options in shirts, hats, bottoms, and swimwear.
- Make it a routine! – Like any other daily activity, such as getting dressed or brushing teeth, make it a part of the day! This way, it is familiar and expected.
- Make it fun! – Play a game or sing a song while applying sunscreen. Use a timer so that the child can know when the activity is going to end.
- Involve the child in the process as much as possible – As appropriate, have the child help with putting on the sunscreen. Use a mirror so that the child can see what is going on.
- Proprioceptive input – Providing proprioceptive input prior to sunscreen application can help to reduce touch sensitivity. This is the sensory input one receives from the movement and force of muscles and joints. Some examples include massage/deep pressure to applicable areas, any pushing/pulling movement, use of weighted items, digging in sand, animal crawls, or wheelbarrow walks. Have the child rub down arms, legs, and back with a towel before applying sunscreen.
Evolution, M. (2021, May 26). Sunscreen Ideas for Tactile Defensive Kids. Mommy Evolution. https://mommyevolution.com/sunscreen-ideas-tactile-kids/
No Author. (2018, March 31). Autism Inclusivity [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved August 6, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/groups/autisminclusivity
Movement Matters. (2020, May 3). Occupational Therapy ABC. https://www.movementmatters.com/
About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.
Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.