Therapy Can Benefit Children with Tactile Sensitivities

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Children with cerebral palsy often suffer from some type of tactile sensitivity which can lead to inappropriate responses to everyday activities, writes Cerebral Palsy Family Network editor Lee Vander Loop. She offers an overview of the disorder and common at-home therapies to help affected children cope.

Cerebral Palsy Family Network
If left untreated, tactile sensitivity can seriously interfere with a child’s quality of life.

Many children with cerebral palsy express discomfort with how they are touched and the objects that touch them, notes Lee Vander Loop, Cerebral Palsy Family Network editor.

In a recent article on Cerebral Palsy Family Network, Vander Loop describes the disorder known as “tactile sensitivity,” its cause and some therapies to help affected children.

According to Vander Loop, while all children are sensitive to touch from time to time, frequent negative reactions to touch may indicate a problem. She says among the common indications that a child may have an impairment that causes tactile sensitivity are:

  •     Shrinking back from touch
  •     Fighting diapering or dressing
  •     Strong avoidance of walking barefoot
  •     An unusual sensitivity to painful stimuli (such as shots)
  •     Struggling against hair washing, hair grooming or nail clipping

“Children with sensitivities are often irritable and don’t adjust well to changes or new situations. They spend so much energy dealing with the many unpleasant perceptions and sensations they face on a daily basis, they don’t have much left to deal with anything else,” Vander Loop notes in the article.

Scientific research, she said, has confirmed that children with cerebral palsy are especially vulnerable to painful stimuli. A 2012 study lead by Australian researchers M.L. Auld and R. Boyd, found that tactile sensitivity in children with cerebral palsy could affect motor function and therefore should be targeted early-on for therapy. A simultaneous study by the same researchers concluded that children should be assessed routinely for tactile sensitivity because of its relationship to arm function.

What’s behind these sensitivities and what can parents and caregivers do to help?

The Anatomy of Our Senses
According to Vander Loop, the portion of the brain that responds to touch and other environmental stimulation is called the somatosensory cortex. This system is responsible for multiple sensations including light touch, pain, pressure, and temperature. The somatosensory cortex also assesses the size, shape, and texture of objects based on their feel and helps judge body position using sensory input from the joints, muscle and skin, she said.

“Many times, cerebral palsy results in damage to this region of the brain, so it’s not surprising that many children with cerebral palsy experience sensory challenges and difficulties. Data suggest that altered somatosensory brain processing in people with cerebral palsy may cause overstimulation of that portion of the brain. This can result in inappropriate responses to everyday experiences, such as physical affection, play, bathing and other activities,” she explained.

Helping Your Child Cope
“If you suspect your child may be experiencing sensory processing difficulties, ask your pediatrician or therapist for an evaluation. If left untreated, tactile sensitivity can seriously interfere with a child’s quality of life,” Vander Loop advises.

She said children suffering from environmental and tactile sensitivity often benefit from occupational therapy. An occupational therapist will work with a child in a sensory-rich environment to help them learn coping strategies that will allow them to behave in a functional manner in daily life, she said. Occupational therapy for children is designed to be fun but challenging, with the end goal that the child can eat, play with friends, attend school, and participate in other activities that were difficult before therapy, she added.

At-Home Activities
There are many activities you can do with your child at home to help them become more comfortable with “unpleasant” sensations, and a child’s occupational therapist will recommend activities appropriate for a child’s unique situation, Vander Loop writes. The article contains the following descriptions of some of the most common at-home therapies available for this disorder:

  •     The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol -- This involves firm and rapid pressure to the arms, hands, back, legs and feet with a specific plastic surgical scrub brush. This is followed by gentle joint compressions to the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, ankles and sometimes, fingers and feet. A knowledgeable therapist should tell you if this is an appropriate therapy for your child and show you how to conduct it properly.
  •     Deep Pressure/Weighted Products -- There are many wearable weighted products on the market designed to provide deep pressure to children suffering from tactile sensitivity. The deep pressure provides important sensory information to the joints and muscles that helps calm sensitive children. Weighted products should be used under the supervision of a pediatrician or therapist.
  •     Messy Play -- Many children with tactile sensitivity have an aversion to touching things of a certain texture or “messy” things. Therapists often encourage children to explore these items through play. Messy play can involve dough, glue, finger paint, sand or other hands-on materials. Ease into messy play slowly. If your child is fearful of the materials, encourage play in a less threatening way. For example, therapists recommend you allow your child to use your hands to start touching the material. Allow him or her to put objects in and out of the messy materials. As your child becomes more comfortable with the material, slowly encourage him or her to explore it more. As with any therapy, you should consult your child’s doctor or therapist before beginning messy play at home.

Tactile sensitivity in children with cerebral palsy can have a huge impact on their quality of life, notes Vander Loop. She advises that supervised therapy be started at an early age to help a child learn to overcome and cope with negative reactions to daily activities. For more information about tactile sensitivity, she encouraged parents to talk to their child’s doctor. Also, CP Family Network offers an online database of cerebral palsy resources in every state.

Cerebral Palsy Family Network
The Cerebral Palsy Family Network is a 501-C3 non-profit organization whose mission is to provide medical and legal resources to families and children with cerebral palsy. Among the resources it offers parents are the Cerebral Palsy Online Resource Directory, a free searchable database of resources available to CP families in each state and Washington, D.C., and the Care Guide: Medical and Emergency Records, which helps parents organize, update and share information about their child using their computer.

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Lee Vander Loop
Cerebral Palsy Family Network
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