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Special Needs Digest

sensory defensiveness

Make It Stop Bothering Me!
Sensory Defensiveness: A Touchy Situation

by Jack Taulbee, Ed.M., M.A.

Sensory-defensiveness involves exceptional sensitivity to sight, sound, taste, touch or feel.  It is caused by differing factors in the neurology of the central nervous system, but it results in excessive interpretation by the brain of sensory information supplied to it by the body.

One way to comprehend sensory defensiveness in the case of touch, for example, is to try to imagine yourself with the worst sunburn possible. Now imagine someone coming up and rubbing your skin with steel wool or sandpaper.  It is not literally as painful as that would be, but a person who experiences this disorder can feel a reaction that strong to the feeling of being touched by something  The sensation is excessively uncomfortable and even repulsive. 

For those who can remember schooldays past, it is similar to the sound of fingernails being scraped across a chalkboard.  In other words, it is not something that can be tolerated for more than a few seconds at a time.

Parents with children who suffer from this disorder can find themselves cutting out labels from clothes, being careful to check the “feel” of the material and making sure the child has ample time to try out articles of clothing before making a purchase.  Not always an easy task!

Even though it can prove to be very trying, in most cases sensory defensiveness does not cause life-threatening problems, however in other cases it can prove to be more than problematic.

In my own case, I had a terrible issue with the feel of dental instruments against any part of my mouth. I thought that I was handling things just fine, but each time I visited the dentist my problem worsened.  I unconsciously fought against any and all foreign objects used by the dentist to work on me.  My tongue had to be held back by the assistant even during a simple cleaning, which resulted in extra fees for the special service. The feeling and even the sounds of drilling proved to be far more than I could handle.

Since I did not want to lose my teeth, I eventually bought an electric toothbrush and placed it around different areas of my mouth over and over again until I became better accustomed to it.  I even took an electric massager and placed it around key areas of my neck and head to become more accepting of the vibration that would occur during a filling of a tooth.  I made arrangements to watch a dentist work on patients firsthand.  This helped me become aware of the different steps that would be taking place and to see how simple many of the procedures actually were even though sounds and touch made it feel much more complicated.

Further, to keep my mind off the event itself, I practiced the art of meditating on humorous images from movies.  It was a tough battle, but eventually I won!  I have become pretty adept at placing a thought or image in my mind the minute I hit the dentist chair. I even managed to laugh a little during my last root canal.

It is still no easy undertaking and probably never will be, but at least I feel that I have the upper hand now and will be able to keep my teeth for a little while longer.

It is important that parents help introduce their children with sensory- defensiveness to ways of dealing with it in a controlled and accepting environment. It may require some creative thinking, as in my case, but it is well worth it to help children release some of the physical restraints placed on them by this unfortunate disorder.


Jack Taulbee is the author of Understanding Children of Special Needs: What Every Parent Needs to Know.  To contact Jack or order his book, see his Web site.


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