I got a call from my son’s school one October as I was driving to an appointment for work. Recognizing the number, I picked up the call. He had vomited at school and was being sent home. What??!! He was FINE this morning, but being the dutiful mother that I am, I agreed to pick him up right away. Cancelling my appointment, I turned the car in the opposite direction and headed to Kindergarten to see what was up with my little guy.
Arriving at the school, I found out that today was “Carve a Pumpkin” day. Oh, how FUN! The kids would LOVE that! (My real thought…those teachers are BRAVE! LOL) When I entered the classroom to retrieve him, he was sitting on the chair next to the door, smiling. There was a carved pumpkin across the room sitting on the window sill – also smiling. Hmmm…
What I came to learn, as I spoke to the teacher, was that Ethan (we’ll call him Ethan) was fine up until PUMPKIN CARVING TIME! He was okay watching the teacher cut the top off, but once each child got a turn to scoop the insides out, Ethan took one look and started to gag! As he got closer and closer, and the sight and smell became stronger, his physical reaction increased! Once he took a scoop and got a little on his hand, he lost it! He unswallowed his whole breakfast all over the floor! Luckily he turned, so Mr. Pumpkin was salvaged. LOL. What a HUGE reaction to the sight, smell and touch of something slimy!
As therapists working in Early Intervention, we often meet families of young children who have what we would call “Tactile Sensitivity”. So, what is tactile sensitivity?? Well, it’s a technical term we use to explain when a child doesn’t like to be touched or touch specific textures. Many children can be hyper-sensitive to specific textures, such as sticky, slimy or gooey, or possibly even dry textures like sand or dried rice! Some children will have a physical reaction if their sensitivity is very high, like Ethan!
For other children, especially our medically fragile population, just BEING TOUCHED can produce resistance! Little Lucy, one of our beautiful 18 month old friends, HATED having her feet and hands touched. After some practice, and an open conversation with Mom, Lucy’s OT learned that at 6 months old, Lucy had undergone weeks of blood tests and a hospitalization. She had been POKED and PRODDED by numerous health professionals. How scary for a baby! Even with Mom and Dad’s loving presence, this was so HARD for her (and Mom & Dad, too!)
Janet, her fabulous OT, explained to Lucy’s Mom that these experiences, though necessary, were likely contributing to this hypersensitivity to touch…even by Mom or Dad in the most LOVING way! Janet went on to explain how POWERFUL our SENSORY memories can be.
Think about that, “sensory memories”…have you ever had a time that you hear or smell something and it reminds you of someone? Every fall, I smell apple cinnamon candles and think of sitting at my Dad’s kitchen table. So sweet! But they can also be negative…TOUCH, for Lucy, got her guard UP! The MEMORIES of being touched in such a negative way (needles, blood draws, etc.) made ANY touch negative. Poor little Peanut! And poor Mom!
Together, Janet and Mom devised a plan that would GRADUALLY expose her to POSITIVE touch experiences. They got REALLY creative! How about dry beans in a box? Or a swift towel dry after bath! Add some silly faces and sounds for that one…and smiles and laughs! Infant massage can do WONDERS for creating positive touch and BONDING!
Over time, Lucy’s family began to see progress. The big moment came when visiting the pumpkin farm (don’t take Ethan!) …and there was a giant sensory box of corn kernels for kids to climb, scoop and play in. Mom WENT FOR IT! Lucy paused, and – EVER SO SLIGHTLY- brushed the dry corn with her hands. Surrounded by other children laughing and playing…LUCY DUG RIGHT IN! She was able to play and enjoy herself!
Mom also reported Lucy now holds hands during songs at bedtime. Go, Lucy! Go, Mom and Dad! Hug that baby and enjoy every moment!
Tell us about YOUR tactile sensitivities! What can’t you touch?? Do you hate tags on your shirt? A wrinkled sock in your shoe? Touching and playing play dough with your kids? Time to desensitize!
As for Ethan, every year now, we carve pumpkins…and every year, he finds something else he’d rather do… less clean-up for me!