The Sense of Touch: Somatosenory

Senses are the brain’s capability to process information from the surrounding environment, commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there are a variety of senses. Today, we are focusing on the sense of hearing, otherwise known as “Somatosensory,” and how it’s affected by Sensory Processing Disorder.

The sense of touch is the activation of neural receptors generally in the skin. The sense of touch encompasses many different types of stimuli including but not limited to pain, pressure, tension, temperature, texture, shape, weight, contours and vibrations. Depending on the sensations depends on the type of neural receptor. For example, thermoreceptors respond to temperature, nociceptors respond to pain, and mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical stimuli such as tension, pressure, vibration.

A common misbelief is that skin is the only organ involved with the sense of touch, but in fact, the receptors are spread all throughout the body including muscles, joints, bones, nostrils, throat, tongue etc comprising the somatosensory system.

The sensations travel through the neural pathways to the spinal cord, the brain stem and the thalamus to what is called the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

When your child is suffering from sensory processing disorder and has issues processing touch based sensations, their brains are either receiving “too much” information or “not enough” information.

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving too much information:

  • avoiding touch including hugs from familiar adults
  • distressed during hair cutting or brushing and sometimes washed
  • using fingertips rather than using their whole hand
  • overreaction to being accidentally bumped or touched
  • doesn’t like to be barefoot
  • dislike clothing, hats, mittens, and shoes
  • doesn’t wash hands because it feels unpleasant
  • unable to tolerate food in the mouth
  • doesn’t tolerate toothbrush touching their teeth

Here are some indicators that your child might be receiving not enough information:

  • touching people regardless of personal boundaries
  • playing with other people’s hair or clothing
  • pinch, bite or hurts themselves or others
  • doesn’t understand their own strength
  • high pain threshold
  • hit or bang head on purpose
  • throw themselves onto the ground

If you find that your child has some of these indicators, here are a few things that you can do to help them.

  • allow them to fiddle with something that is appropriate and not distracting to others
  • carry squeeze ball or fidget toys with you if they are touching something they are not supposed to be touching
  • have them wear textured clothing
  • sand play, water play, finger paints as sensory output activities
  • give advanced warning to activities that need to be done (like washing hair)
  • use blankets and stuffed animals to help them sleep at night
  • experiment with different foods (for example smooth or crunchy peanut butter)

A tactile disorder should be taken seriously as touch is very important in establishing fine motor skills because they use taste and touch to explore the world around them. Find an occupational therapy who can work with your child.