The Tactile System

Hot. Cold. Hard. Soft. Smooth. Rough.

When reading these words, chances are that you are able to imagine what they would feel like, due to you having already felt these sensations in the past. This is called tactile discrimination – or the ability to say what you are feeling, without seeing it. This ability forms one part of your tactile system.

The other part, is what we like to call ‘modulation’. Modulation is when you are able to touch any kind of tactile input, and be 100% okay with it. Lots of the children OT’s see in their practices, have a modulation difficulty when it comes to their tactile systems. Meaning, they are either tactile seeking or tactile sensitive / avoidant.

I’m sure that you have heard these words a lot coming from OT’s or teachers, but have never quite understood what it meant. Well, let me break it down for you.

Modulation difficulties can be found in all sensory systems. When your child has a modulation difficulty, he can either be sensory seeking, low registration, sensory avoidant or sensory sensitive. Sensory seeking and low registration kids, have a high threshold for sensory input, meaning that they need a lot of sensory input to get them into the arousal band. Sensory avoidant and sensory sensitive kids, have a low threshold for sensory input, meaning that they don’t like certain types of sensory input or too much sensory input can send them into overstimulation or shutdown. To understand this better, replace the words ‘sensory input’ in the above paragraph, with i.e. ‘tactile stimuli’, or ‘vestibular stimuli’.

For this specific article, we will be discussing the tactile system and the modulation difficulties that goes with it.


Tactile seeking:

When a child needs lots of tactile stimuli to get him in the arousal band. These kids often fidget in class and play with their hair, watch, fingers or clothing, in order to keep their concentration on the teacher or task at hand. So what can be done to help these kids? Give their fidgets toys to fidget with in class, as easy as that! Additionally, give them lots of tactile stimulation activities to do at home, i.e. baking, making play-dough and playing with it, gardening and making stress balls with flour and balloons. The latter can also be used as a fidget toy for class.


Low registration:

These kids also need lots of tactile stimuli to get them in the arousal band, but they don’t actively seek it. Meaning, their concentration isn’t what is needs to be, but they don’t realize that fidgeting will improve it! These kids are the hardest to identify and treat, since their concentration is low, but nothing can be observed as to why. All of the tactile seeking activities from above can be used with these kids as well, together with motivation to fidget and play with their fidget toys and stress balls in class.


Tactile avoidant and tactile sensitive:

Tactile defensiveness is frequently seen in children with learning difficulties, developmental delays, and more serious conditions. Kids that are either tactile avoidant or tactile sensitive, do not like different or new types of tactile stimuli, and are more often than not also fussy eaters. They have a low threshold for tactile stimuli, meaning that only a little bit is necessary to get them into the arousal band, but when the stimuli get too much, they may get overstimulated and therefore not be in the arousal band anymore, meaning that their concentration flies out the window as well! You would also often see them washing their hands a lot or wiping them on their clothes while eating i.e. a sandwich with their hands. Activities to do at home to improve the child’s tactile sensitivity, would be to expose them to different textures and sensations in meaningful activities. Always start with stimuli that can be wiped off easily or that do not stick to their hands, i.e. rice. Fill a big crate or bowl with dry rice or beans and let them find different objects in there. When they can endure this input, move on to the next one. You can then let them find objects or draw with their fingers in a bowl of flour. This activity is different to the previous one, as the flour sticks to their hands when they take it out of the bowl. Alternatively, let them play with shop-bought slime or flubber (recipe below)!!


Flubber is a great tool to use with any of the above mentioned children. The tactile seeking and low registration child will benefit from this to get them into the arousal band, while the tactile avoidant or –sensitive child will benefit from it due to it decreasing their sensitivity.


Flubber recipe:

·             ¾ cup of cold water

·             1 cup of white craft glue

·             liquid food colouring

·             ½ cup hot water

·             1 teaspoon borax (can be found at DisChem)



·             In bowl 1, mix together the cold water, glue, and food colouring. Set aside.

·             In bowl 2, mix together the hot water and borax until the borax is completely dissolved.

·             Slowly add the glue mixture to the borax mixture. Mix well – it will look and feel a bit slimy. After kneading it, the flubber will become more stiff and smooth.


Activities that can be used with the flubber:

·             Making the flubber at home is a great sensory activity that the kids will love! It also has the added benefit of playing with it afterwards.

·             Building letters or numbers with it.

·             Hiding small objects, i.e. marbles or pegs in it, which the child then has to find.

·             Copying patterns or objects, i.e. build a square with your flubber, which the child then has to copy.

·             Building snakes or snowmen with it.  


I hope that you understand the tactile system better after this article and feel empowered to help your child with their tactile modulation difficulties. When it comes to activities and ways to help your child with their tactile difficulties, the possibilities are endless. All it takes is a bit of imagination, time and love.


Happy Parenting!!