“They do this thing” I gushed. “Where they grab your finger with their whole hands and they don’t let go. That is their way of saying their first hello, they are pleased to finally meet you and that they love you.” “Wow,” they replied. “All that from touching you?” “Yes - all that from touch.”
Touch. It is quite powerful really when you think about it. It is the first unspoken conversation with your child. It can comfort in the dead of the night. It can soothe away an ache. It can reassure them as you walk through busy streets. It can applaud them with a single pat. It can express your love when no words come close.
But what happens when your touch means something different to your child?
When a stroke of their arm fills them with fear?
When an offered object is viewed with distrust?
When an unexpected brush of a sleeve can make them fretful?
When simple every day activities can send them into “fight or flight” mode?
Tactile defensiveness is part of sensory processing disorder. This is when a person finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses - sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells, movement and balance, body position and muscle control.
The SPD Foundation indicates that 1 in 20 children experience symptoms of sensory processing disorder to an extent that it affects their ability to participate in everyday life. In my son’s case his inability to explore his environment in a typical way due to his hypotonia (floppy muscles) affected his brain’s interpretation of touch. This tactile defensiveness makes him feel overwhelmed and for the longest time he avoided touch when possible. For a while there he didn’t even recognise his hands as his own as they received so little feedback from the world around him.
Over time his hand use has improved but hand function still remains the most delayed part of his development. We have consulted with both NHS and private therapists about ways to improve this and received many useful suggestions such as:
• Using a vibrating hand massager to stimulate the senses
• Tapping the hand and reminding him that this is Gabriel’s hand
• Introducing different tactile stimulations slowly over a period of time
• Using deep pressure on the hands instead of a light feathery touch
• Messy play with foam, sand, water and food.
All has helped at different stages – the most dramatic being the hand massager in the earlier years. After a few seconds stimulation he could tolerate holding a previously shunned small object. Now he will flick everything he comes across, tentatively at first, then as he grows more comfortable with the item he will explore and experiment as any toddler would. How we rejoiced when he reached into a toy box to pull out items and cheered as he used his hands in propel himself around the house in a nifty bum shuffle.
The most wondrous moment by far though was the first time he reached out with his tiny little hand and rested it on top of mine. I hadn’t realised what I had missed out on in all those years.
Couldn’t have known how huge this gesture would be. Because in that instant I understood that holding your child’s hand is way to touch their heart.