The sensory development notes published on this website are prepared in collaboration with an 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. The complete document complementary to the book can be opened here.
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. The experiences of touch we receive builds 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 sense of touch means that the person can easily feel the impressions of pressure against their skin. They have a heightened sense of their boundary that creates a distinction between what is ‘I’ and ‘the other’. Babies with a hyper sense of touch may demand to be held, swaddled and positioned in a particular way to settle because they experience all the variances in pressure from what or who is touching them. If they are cuddly, they want cuddles on their terms and are choosy about the people with whom they are tactile, often preferring only the primary caregivers to carry and hold them because familiar experiences are less stimulating. The primary caregiver may notice that when holding them, the child holds their body weight apart from them.
The child can be disturbed by sensations against their skin, the way clothes are positioned and a particular fibre or texture can irritate or hurt a child with a hyper sense of touch. Tickling can cause discomfort and even pain. The texture of foods can cause a similar reaction. Overall the person with a hyper sense of touch tends to keep to their personal space, and particularly in childhood can feel threatened when this space is penetrated by someone or something else. From the outside, the child might seem jumpy when they are approached. For this reason, they may push back to defend their personal space or withdraw to more protected grounds. The fact they can feel this intrusion is their direct relationship to their touch sense that teaches us who and what we can trust. They can tend towards creating and maintaining inflexible physical boundaries to feel safe.
When the touch is pleasurable, a person with a hyper sense of touch may lose themselves in it. The type of touch they want can be very specific, and they may not return the affection. An adult may need to control the way another touches them to feel a sense of safety and connection
Hypo sense of touch
A person with a hypo sense of touch does not easily feel the pressure against their skin, and they need firmer or more regular touch to stimulate the sense receptors to differentiate between themselves and the other. Babies with a hypo sense of touch tend to settle best when they have something touching most of their body surface. They tend to drop their body weight onto the caregiver and push against swaddling, as it is the resistance that helps them to settle.
A child may extend and push their body until they feel the boundary, sometimes to the point of repeatedly hitting their head or body against hard surfaces. They tend to touch most things they see, using varying amounts of pressure. For example, they may stroke a rabbit very lightly, then poke their finger into its ear or eye, then push hard on its belly and pull its fur. To be satisfied they need to touch a lot or be touched a lot. Diagnoses of sensory processing disorder or hyperactivity may be questioned because of this.
With age, they may still rely upon external pressure against their skin to experience their boundary and obtain a sense of separateness from the outside world. Since personal space is less defined in a person with a hypo sense of touch, they may naively penetrate 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 can find it difficult to trust in relationships where physical contact is restricted, and their affection is not reciprocated.
How to harmonise and support the development of the touch sense
One of the best things we can do to support the touch sense in children is to give firm and, warm, loving physical and behavioural boundaries. This provides the child with a hyper sense of touch the opportunity to feel safe to extend their exploration without becoming ‘lost’ or frightened for their safety, and the hypo sense of touch child the opportunity to meet themselves within the boundary which keeps them safe. These boundaries can also be brought using stories that create imaginative pictures along with visual cues.
Bedding and clothing can make a difference to the pressure we experience. Swaddling a hyper sense of touch baby gives them the security they require to settle, but the quality of the pressure and the fabric is important. They may need a light wool wrap that has a little stretch, so they feel the firmness for security but are not over-powered by the pressure. A hypo sense of touch baby is also made feel secure by swaddling, but they may need a thicker firmer fabric and to be regularly re-wrapped sometimes varying the fabrics. The same principle applies to older children. Woollen blankets provide more weight and protection than a feather quilt, whereas soft sheets made of cotton, silk or linen can be varied according to the sensitivity of the child. A hyper sense of touch child will need a particular weight and texture of clothing, while the hypo sense of touch child tends to settle best with weight upon them; wearing clothing that is heavy can often help calm a hypo sense of touch child and allow them to be attentive at school. For the hyper sense of touch child it is important to maintain opportunities to safely explore a variety of textures in a way they feel supported and understood but encouraged to be comfortable with more than their familiar selection.
A hyper sense of touch child 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. A hypo sense of touch 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.
The greater the variety of natural materials that we experience, the more opportunity we have of meeting many perspectives of life and ourself. Create opportunities for experiencing light silks and heavy stones, rough barks and slippery shells, spikey ferns and spongy petals, soft pillows and hard benches. Touching a variety of natural fibres makes us feel something different with each experience and requires us to bring something of ourself to meet it. This creates an ‘inner resource library’ of flexible feelings. This activity is helpful for the hyper sense of touch child who generally prefers to stay with familiar, safe experiences. It is also helpful for the hypo sense of touch child 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. Some materials such as plastic that is especially designed to be lifeless and uniform, limit the sensation we can receive. When touching plastic we need not change much in ourself at all. 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. By this we find out more about ourself.
In the garden, we can feel the weight of the earth when we lift dirt, rocks and plants. Crafts where we push against an organic living object and shape it include hand modelling, carving, stone masonry, sculpting and woodwork. The experiences of weight and pressure help us to experience ourself.
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 hyper sense of touch person can need less touch to feel themselves but benefit from having a protective lotion applied to their boundary as a second skin. Rudolf Steiner indicated the value of using extracts of peat moss (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.