Tactile Defensiveness


I open my eyes – the clock reads 5:00 am.

What is that sound?

THUD! THUD! “MOM!” I hear Nick yell.

“My foot hurts!” he yells.


“Come in here Nick!” I yell still lying in bed with my eyes shut, “What is wrong?” I immediately begin having pseudo dreams about having to take him to the doctor and finding out that there is something horribly wrong with his foot.

But that isn’t what happened.

He comes hobbling in – hopping clear across the house with one foot in the air.

Nick climbs in bed, and places the bottom of his foot within an inch of my face. I squint to see – it is early and I don’t have my glasses on, not to mention it is still pretty dark in the room.

I can’t see anything. Maybe a small red non-descript area, but that’s it.

“Show your dad,” I say, “he is in the shower.”

I hear Jeff and Nick in the bathroom and Jeff is insisting that Nick sit still – and Nick is insisting that it hurts.


“You have to sit still.”


“Sit still!”

Finally, they are done. I hear Jeff tell Nick to try and walk on his foot, and Nick walks to me with tears in his eyes, climbs in my bed and Jeff says to me, “It was a splinter – but it was HUGE like this!” while holding his hands about a foot apart, grinning a wide and sarcastic smile.

A splinter.

A splinter.

And it woke Nick up at 5am and forced him to hobble through the house in pain.

A splinter.

That my friends is Tactile Defensiveness.

How do I know?  Aside from the over-reaction? 

Well, for Nick, it shows itself in virtually everything he does –

Let’s go with other examples from my darling and under-talked about middle son:

1. Nick refused to get himself some peanut butter from the jar yesterday because it was nearly empty and the peanut butter would get on his hands – and he can’t handle the sticky feeling.  So I had to brave the sticky peanut butter jar of doom myself.

2. He won’t eat virtually ANY textures besides crunchy (crackers, pretzels, chips) and creamy (peanut butter, yogurt) – and this takes the cake so to speak (ironically, he will eat cake – but usually just the frosting) on things he does that drive me nuts.

3. He can’t eat food at the wrong temperature: He won’t eat cold peanut butter, even slightly warm milk, chicken nuggets that are too hot or too cold, etc. This is the biggest challenge that I face in getting him to try new foods – he prefers room temperature and what in THE WORLD is actually best when eaten at room temp? Aside from red wine…

4. He had an accident (forced to pee his pants from laughing so hard) and then refused to touch his own clothes to take them off. When I got him to do it (hey, it wasn’t my pee; I wasn’t touching it!) he began to scream and yell while running naked through the house that the pee ‘hurt’ him.

5. Nick also refuses most nights to wash his hair – so unless he has been in chlorine (hot tub) or sweating a lot (football) he doesn’t have to do it every night. Our rule is that he has to wash the ‘stinky parts’ (feet, butt, penis, pits) and that he can do his hair the next night. But still, he hates it and tries to manipulated himself out of having to do it -- which I hate to say he is pretty good at.

6. Won’t get in the shower unless the water is JUST RIGHT. He spends literally probably 3 FULL minutes standing at the edge of the shower adjusting the temperature before he gets in. That is enough to drive this impatient-mom over the edge.

7. Won’t wear socks. This is new. He hates the way socks feel, so often he sneaks out of the house without them – which is fine (seamless socks like these from Soft Clothing work better than anything else), except for if he loses the insert in his shoes (you know, that thing on the bottom that comes out every time you take them off especially if you have nasty sweaty feet because you aren’t wearing socks – yeah, that thing) then he can’t wear his shoes because it feels ‘weird’ to have only one – or none.

8. Hates loud noises – hates them. He actually has since he was really little, but specifically unpredictable loud noises like fire alarms or smoke detectors (like the one in my kitchen, which went off once and he has never forgiven me for it – when I cook anything he thinks will smoke he opens all of the windows in the house). This is a big one for Nick.

Now there are a million other ways in which Tactile Defensiveness appears in kids like Nick who otherwise don’t have any challenges – Nick doesn’t have Sensory Processing Disorder, but rather appears ‘quirky’ or ‘picky’. The difference? Nick's sensory issues don’t impact his social or academic life – he functions wonderfully but is vocal about his preferences at home. And, since his brothers are both given accommodations to make them function best, Nick doesn’t see why he would be any different.

And neither do I!

How are your children sensory-defensive?

Please share!

Photo:  Nick and Matt playing in the water table out back this spring -- Nick is a GREAT brother!


Adoption of Jane said...

for us, any change in schedules and routines throw my son off. He always eats his dinner on his elmo table trying to get him to sit at any other table is a big isssue. If we go out I ask the waiter to serve french fries immediately. Thats the only thing I can use to get him to eat at anther table.

a Tonggu Momma said...

we have to buy panties from Hanna Andersson because they wrap the elastic waist and legs with cotton (she can't stand the feel of elastic against her skin)

repetitive noises or loud, unexpected noises

took a long time to enjoy baths and later, showers because she dislikes water in her face

the temperature of the shower must be JUST right

tries to avoid wearing socks at all cost and dislikes the feel of most waistbands (she tends to wear dresses with leggings or bike shorts under them)

Anonymous said...

Shower is a big thing. Water on his face "hurts" his skin and we have to get the right temperature.

We can't touch the inside of his clothes. Otherwise, he thinks they are stretched out and will have to get some thing different to wear.

no sheets. Just a fleece blanket.

Any kind of injury--perceived or real--is a huge deal. We actually just had a similar splinter issue but during a baseball game. I had to find the splinter (on his leg) and pull it out before he could go back in the game.

Buying shoes is a challenge. He is so picky. They have to be tight (luckily he can learned to tie his shoes) but they can't bother him. Can't be too heavy, can't have too much velcro, etc. Lucky for us, there is a Nordstrom here. They are great and let us return shoes that don't work.

But at the same time, he is funny and sweet and athletic and smart.We did therapy with him this past year and he is doing so much better. His academics have not been affected and he is figuring out some of the social things--keeping hands to self is the big thing.

Anonymous said...

Not only is your post entertaining and shows stuff we ALL can relate to, but you show something very important.

Nick is not being diagnosed but still having sensory preferences/avoidances and perhaps does not have enough words to express the difference between pain and discomfort. (He does not meet the definition of 'defensiveness' in my book, but my book is not the ultimate authority.)

"Nick's sensory issues don’t impact his social or academic life". I wish more online references to these issues would bear-out this distinction - the 'sensory challenges' are not the barrier to social and cognitive development, or, resolving sensory issues is not the path to typical learning.

Sensory dysfunction, rather dysfunctional response to sensations accompanies cognitive and social learning delays.

Likely, Nick will mature out of most of the behaviors you describe (while some may persist if they are reinforced...). Maturation (albeit slower) is the reason children on the spectrum change in their sensory responses over time, too. Meantime, a well-designed sensory diet can help the whole family and the child manage extreme responses.


Jenna said...

Wow that post hit home. :) Joey is not really tactile defensive but rather a sensory seeker. However there are a few exceptions. The first one is it has always been tough to keep socks on that boy. He will wear them with his shoes to school or out of the house, but the second he comes in...whether here or someone else's house the shoes and socks come off. Also lately and I think this really has more to do with his seizure meds being upped...but he has this thing about if his hands get wet, he freaks out till they are dry because he insists they will get "hairy" If he drops something on the floor he insists it is hairy and we have to wash it off. This is all new for him as he has always been the kid up to his elbows in anything messy, paint, car oil etc. Maybe I will try the seamless socks.

chmchm said...

I just posted a story about our son Charlie on his first day at camp. Mushy, wet shoes.
I totally understood, but...

MomLovesDeals said...

My youngest son is a sensory seeker and didn't talk (not one sound, at all) at 16 months so we called a speech therapist. She is who determined he has SPD but we also figured out that the older one, who is 4, is vestibular (he will spin or, as he calls it, "dance" for hours. He LOVES swings, especially tire swings and never gets motion sickness.) But, like Nick, he doesn't actually have SPD. After reading your post, I know he has some tactile issues, too. The food thing is huge. If he sees steam, I have to put his plate in the freezer until the steam goes away. He usually just waits to eat until it's room temp. He also hates loud noises, especially the toilet flushing. We do the flush and dash game in public restrooms (he leaves the stall, stands right by the door, I flush it quickly and we both run!) It's fun carrying a sensory seeker who hates to be held, haha. I am so glad I found your blog because some days, I think I am the only person dealing with these weird quirks and have heard over and over that I need to just discipline my kids more.

SensoryMommy said...

Oh we understand...
Crash will sit at the table and request, then insist, and then meltdown if someone refuses to bring him a towel to wash his hands with. A napkin is not big enough I guess. He is so overcome by the sensory overload at that point he is not able to get out of his chair and walk the two feet to grab a kitchen towel.

3boys said...

"Thank you for posting this. I am just getting started with communicating with people, that are going through what we are going through. I laughed when I read this post because this is an everyday thing for us. At this very moment our son is eating his 2:00 frozen yogurt. And if it's not frozen and at 2:00 watch out people! Also we are getting storms, and this sends him through the roof. He can't stand the thunder! We have finally gotten him to handle some loud sounds, but thunder is something you can't tell him when it will happen. Also so many of you have talked about your children not liking socks. Levi has to have socks on, or everything hurts his feet. It's amazing how kids with sensory issues are so different yet have so much in common. And the eating thing, he can't sit to eat! Always has to stand. Well, better go I hear the thunder!

Beth said...

My daughter is typically a sensory-seeker, but has tactile defensive issues with her hands and her feet. The teensiest, tiniest itch/bump/splinter/cut and she howls for a band-aid. And we have underwear issues. I just bought her some new organic cotton panties and we've switched to organic laundry detergent--hoping that this will resolve before she gets teased too much. Hair-brushing is also a problem! And showers.....and....... ;)

Megan said...

My youngest hates the radio in the car. I think it disturbs her thought processes. She asks for silence all the time any time we drive.

Hartley said...

I am glad to see that so many of you relate to this!

And thank you to Barbara for pointing out the importance of recognizing that it is NOT SPD when it isn't affecting your child negatively in all aspects of life -- social and academic development being key. Thanks.


SFlorman said...

Wow. In many ways, I'm still sensory-defensive. I don't mix my textures and temperatures with food, and if I'm not thinking about it (that is, unless I force myself to snap out of it and just get in the shower) I'll stand there for 10 minutes letting the tub faucet run over the back of my hand to get it JUST RIGHT before I'll turn on the shower and get in. If I have to re-tie one shoe, I have to re-tie both or the difference in tightness drives me nuts. The smell of a drop or two of gasoline on my hands after spilling a bit at the pump will bug me for hours unless I force myself to let it go. I have to wash my hands after eating honey, butter, or jam if any gets on me.

The more I read and research, the more I see myself as an undiagnosed adult Aspie. I'm 45. I get your son, I do - and when my kids do the same things, it drives me nuts, too, even though I understand where they get it.

Maria said...

Thanks for posting this. I had sensory issues as a kiddo and learned to just compensate, otherwise I was "picky" or a "baby" in the eyes of most people (my parents were very understanding!)

My daughter who is 12 has sensory issues too. The fact is, I didn't recognize it because I was so used to overcoming/ignoring and general denying my own issues. Which made me an angry person. When I realized what she had, I literally cried for both of us.

Touches, noises, and lights are our major issues. Peripheral lights or fast moving object make us anxious and annoyed. Touches make our skin crawl sometimes. Noises that are unexpected especially bother us, but even the expected ones are upsetting.

We communicate ALOT and respect each others limitations and "sensory overload" moments. We find that when we are eating healthy (very little sugar/high raw foods and whole foods) and get plenty of rest we are less overwhelmed.

Thanks for this blog...and this post.


pr0udmom0f3 said...

Most of the things you listed, Bryce does also.

I love him, but there are days I just want to spray him with a hose of cold water (being he has to have the temp JUST right), throw the peanut butter in the trash (because he claims he can't open the jar, which even my 5 y/o CAN do), wants me to get his drinks and food (though he is old enough and able-bodied), he has a tough time as well with textures of food.

I feel your pain, sister.

3boys said...

I posted the other day, but I have a question. Was wondering if any of you feel that your childs sensory issues get worse around the full moon time. Right now our little guy is so off and he's miserable. Everything is bothering him, and this seems to increase during the full moon. I know it seems odd, but we wondered if anyone else has noticed this.

erin said...

i laughed all the way through this, and cried at the same time. This is my son. So much my son. I get him. but i am the only one that does. I understand why 2 months ago he loved pb&j sandwiches, until i made one with too much j and now he only eats peanut butter- which is also the closest thing he gets to eating a "sauce". i fear the day he figures out pizza has sauce on it. and clothes. wow. not even going there. and thunder. not even. thank you for giving it a name. i had no idea that it had a name.

Caeseria said...

Hadn't thought of it as defensiveness, but my sensory seeker (ironically) WILL NOT touch food that has any steam whatsoever. I cook his food, then stick it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes. He wants his vegetables frozen (yes, out of the bag frozen), and everything else has to be room temp, or it's a fight. I served fried potatoes just about every day for a month, because he LOVES fries and he would pick them up and put them down and pick them up and put them down for some time before actually touching them to his lips (and putting them down, repeat repeat repeat) but I had almost gotten him okay with the presence of steam, and then I went back to normal food and now any warmth is a problem again. Time to go back to the french-fry diet. Just about the only defensiveness he's got.

Joanna said...

Does your son get OT? An Occupational Therapist could really help you to address these issues. I disagree with the thought that children "grow out" of sensory issues. I do believe that they change over time and can morf into other issues, but they do NOT just disappear. I could give you some tips if you are interested.

Joanna Verdone, LOTR

Joanna said...

I should have clarified. They do NOT disappear unless they are addressed.

Hartley said...

Hi Joanna,

Yes, all three of my sons have benefitted from a great Occupational Therapist!

Sensory issues do not disappear, but often we learn to cope with them. Luckily for me, this post is about my middle son Nick, and his sensory differences are not causing any issues for him overall -- no problems socially or academically. He is thriving! : )

Thanks again Joanna,

Jenna said...

My son is 18 months old. Won't sleep with any sort of blanket, sheet, etc without a huge screaming fit (to which he always wins the no-blanket demand).
Won't eat certain textures (porridge, creamed rice, etc), will just spit it straight back out.
Won't wear shoes and socks while travelling in the car, pram or arms (tolerates them while walking, but prefers to wear nothing)
Won't be comforted if he falls, won't be held by anyone at any time (the ONLY person he'll tolerate is his 6 year old sister, and even that's not all the time).
Head bangs the ground when he's frustrated.

He hates being dressed, HATES the feel of nappies (but won't sit on a potty or toilet either), tolerates clothies more than disposables. Would run around naked all day if he could.