The sensory development notes published on this website are prepared in collaboration with and on behalf of Developing the Self Developing the World and to accompany the book “Spirit-led Community – healing the impact of technology” by Lisa Romero.
When we touch something or something touches us, we discover where we end and where the something (or someone) begins. The touch sense makes us aware of what is outside of ourself and also what is inside of ourself. This subtle duality is the first recognition that we have an inner life within our physical being. It leads us to be able to refer to ourself as “I” which happens at about two to three years old.
The touch sense conveys pressure against our skin, from the outer world. It is experienced by the fine mechano-receptors in the skin. Different receptors measure warmth and pain, and these will be described later in the other senses. The experiences of touch we receive build an inner library that we use to understand boundaries. Through the experience of my boundary against another boundary I come back to myself and become aware of the other. Touch is both a uniting and a separating at the same time.
Hyper sense of touch
Having a hyper sensitivity to touch is to have an overactive response to subtle differences of pressure against the skin which forms the boundary between self and other. It can cause discomfort and irritation to feel every slight change of pressure and this can lead to preferences to receive touch only in familiar ways. Babies with a hyper sense of touch can demand to be held, swaddled, and positioned in a particular way in order to be settled. They can seem fussier than normal or highly strung. If they are cuddly they want cuddles in a particular way and can be choosy about the people with whom they are tactile, often preferring those closest and most familiar to them. Caregivers start to notice that the child is disturbed by particular weights, fibres or textures, including the texture of food. Being tickled may be experienced as painful. As they grow they might seem jumpy when they are approached and complain of being threatened by others. To help feel safe they could push others away or keep their distance. They can enjoy touch that is familiar and on their terms and when they find it pleasurable they could lose themselves to the other.
Hypo sense of touch
Being hypo sensitive to touch is to have an under-active response to changes in pressure against the skin. Experiencing touch gives us a sense of self and when firm pressure is experienced and/or large body surface areas are touched, people who are hypo sensitive to touch have a greater opportunity to encounter a boundary between themselves and another. Babies tend to settle better when they are touching, or being touched and may push until they come up against something such as swaddling or the caregiver’s body. It becomes noticeable that the older child is tactile and may also intentionally hit themselves with their own hand or push themselves against other people and other surfaces including the wall. This gives them a sense of where they end and the other begins.
Since personal space is less defined in a person hypo sensitive to touch, they may naively enter the personal space of others. It can also take them a while to realise their personal space is being penetrated. They generally feel comfortable with contact sport and friendships that allow physical contact. As a teenager, they may go back to hugging parents, or they hang out with friends who like hugging. Receiving physical attention can help them to experience their self. They may find it difficult to trust in relationships where physical contact is restricted and affection is not reciprocated.
How to harmonise and support the development of the touch sense
The healthy development of touch is supported by providing firm but warm and loving physical boundaries. This helps the child with hyper sensitivity feel safe to extend their exploration without becoming “lost” or frightened. And it helps the child with a hypo sensitivity to meet themselves within the boundary provided. Boundaries can relate to many aspects of the day including the home and layout of the play environment, the scheduling of a day’s activities, “rules” and behaviour management, and the personal boundary defined by the skin.
It can be beneficial to consider how fabrics touch the body: swaddling a baby hyper sensitive to touch in a light, soft, wool wrap with stretch provides a secure feeling without an overpowering pressure that otherwise stimulates the receptors and can cause difficulty falling asleep. In comparison, the baby with a hypo sensitivity can feel themselves more readily if wrapped in a firm, tight weave fabric and this provides the security that in turn assists sleep. Re-wrapping regains the pressure of the swaddle and requires touching the baby more, both of which can assist the hypo sensitive baby but not necessarily the hyper sensitive baby.
If the person with a hyper sensitivity to touch feels stimulated by the fabric they will find it more difficult to be centred. Try silks, bamboo and cottons with a gentle fall rather than stiff fabric. Quilts filled with wool provide warmth without weight and the skin is buffered from irritation by the outer layer of quilt fabric. Well fitting leggings and singlets sit neatly on the skin without too much movement and form a buffer between the touch receptors and outer layers of fabric. Firmness, stiffness and flowing fabric that is always moving, can provide a constant sensation which reminds the person with a hypo sensitivity of their boundary and assists their development of the touch sense. Stimulating and varying textures and weights can be beneficial for the hypo sensitive person, and increasingly often, weighted blankets and vests are used to calm children in the classroom.
By providing an environment that has a diverse range of textures and weights the hyper sensitive children can develop a familiarity and appreciation for more tangible experiences and the child with hypo sensitivity benefit from regular, familiar experiences that refine sensitivity and differentiation. Nature gifts unique forms and experiences such as feathers and heavy stones, rough barks and slippery shells, spiky ferns and spongy petals, soft wool and hard benches. Between the polarities, the consciousness of differentiation arises and creates an inner flexibility and awareness of the world outside as the child learns to bring forward something of themselves and come to appreciate the outer object while not being overpowered by it. Activities such as sandpit play, hand modelling, gardening and woodwork provide practice towards how much is needed to bring forward to “push against” the other without overpowering them.
The greater the variety of natural materials experienced, the more opportunity of meeting many perspectives of life and self. Touching a variety of natural fibres creates an ‘inner resource library’ of flexible feelings. This activity is helpful for the child with hyper sensitivity who generally prefer to stay with familiar, safe experiences. It is also helpful for the child with hypo sensitivity who needs help to refine and differentiate between the outer subject matter and their self. Natural objects have a health giving effect in relation to the sensory system as a whole. Most man-made products such as plastics are especially designed to be uniform and not interact with the world. This limits the inner change that occurs when we touch it. Whereas every part of nature is variable at every moment. Each time we touch or unite with nature we must bring something forward in us to meet the other, and through this we find out more about ourself.
A child with hyper sensitivity that hits to defend their personal space is best supported by being allowed to retreat, and also by having ways demonstrated to them of how to communicate to maintain personal space without hitting. The reason for separating them from a situation would be so that the stimulation is reduced and they have a buffer that helps them come back to themselves. There is no need to make them feel ashamed of needing this space. A hypo sensitive child that hits because they do not know their boundary, is best supported by giving an experience of a physical boundary in a healthy way. For example they can respond well to being wrapped in a heavy blanket, cuddled and kept in close physical proximity. Whereas if the same child is being consistently separated from others this does not give them the opportunity to learn the boundary and can also set up patterns of unnecessary shame.
Regular massage can be helpful, using a pressure and pace that is safe and nurturing. A person with a hypo sense of touch can benefit from longer durations or more brisk touch with cool water and enlivening substances to stimulate the sensory receptors and raise the awareness of their boundary. Whereas a person with a hyper sense of touch can need less touch to feel themselves but benefit from having a protective lotion applied to their boundary as a second skin. Hypo sensitive people also benefit from the protection lotion. Rudolf Steiner indicated the value of using peat extracts (solum uliginosum) as a protective and preserving sheath for the whole body. The touch can also soothe active sensory receptors, though too much can over-stimulate.
Oil dispersion bath therapy rhythmically and gently sweeps over the skin with stimulating or calming brush textures and oils. The person is embodied in the water without the brushes between themselves and the practitioner. Rhythmical massage uses forms over particular organs and limbs provided by touch from the hand of the practitioner. Eurythmy enhances the sensitivity of the touch sense as the person creates forms in space that become more tangible with practice.