The Tactile System

What is the tactile system?

Our sense of touch.

It plays an essential role in developing our ability to write by hand.

As you read, you might find it interesting to consider yourself and people you know. Is touch something reassuring and welcome, or an irritant and intrusion.

The tactile system adapts in response to our perception and experiences, which helps us stay safe and develop the skills we need to thrive.

There are actually two parts : the discriminative and the protective.

The Discriminative System

This lets us know what we are touching and where we are touching it. As a result our brains receive important feedback which is key to developing motor skills (including fine motor skills like writing).

Handwriting is a cognitive skill we develop gradually through experience, following a process. Tactile recognition helps us hold and adjust to the type of pen we are using and learn to apply appropriate pressure. Accurate visual perception is also necessary to help us control the size, shape and positioning of letters.

Research shows that direct instruction is the most effective way to improve handwriting. Good teaching feeds into the discriminative system.

The Protective System

This helps keep us safe, allowing us to give attention to developing skills like writing that move us forward.

Think about something as simple as a fly landing on your arm. The sensation triggers a reaction to remove the threat of the fly and the germs it might transfer. Instinctively you make a sudden movement to make the fly go away. You will probably then find yourself ducking and swiping as it refuses to leave you alone! This is the protective system working.

It warns us when we are in contact with something negative or potentially dangerous, triggering a fight, flight, fright or freeze response. The whole mind and body is involved in an unconscious reaction. Responses are either reflex and defensive or designed to calm and soothe.

Some people are tactile defensive.

Their protective system reacts strongly to touch sensations. Certain fabrics and garment labels may irritate them. They may also dislike certain foods because of the texture.

Some will flinch in response to a friendly pat, or go rigid and pull back from what is intended as an affectionate hug. This might come across as rejection or being unemotional, and yet it's actually a symptom of the tactile system doing its job. Understanding, together with careful, gradual exposure can help retrain the brain and reduce negative reactions.

For some great activities to do with children that develop tactile processing have a look at