Tactile Defensiveness

Children Playing in Corn Box

By Jennifer Berg

It is no secret that children born with a vision impairment tend to be tactually defensive.  Families and interventionists must work to encourage infants with visual impairments to tactually explore their environment. It’s understandable that a small toddler who has never seen the world around him wouldn’t want to plunge his hands into squishy pudding or fluffy whipped cream. However, tactile defensiveness has also been observed in youngsters without disabilities. For example, toddlers who do not like sticky things on their hands or the toddlers in cute social media videos showing adverse reactions to grass. This prompts several questions, including: at what point do infants and toddlers without disabilities overcome fears of messy, unpreferred or new textures? If children without disabilities exhibit tactile defensiveness, that means the root of the aversion reaches beyond using vision to see what they are touching. What leads to their eventual acceptance? How can we use this information to benefit our visually impaired population? The purpose of this essay is to explore those questions in light of resources available today.

Tactile defensiveness is also referred to as “tactile sensitivity” or “selective touch” (Ferrell 2011). According to Pogrund & Fazzi, a “true” tactile defensiveness is based in the central nervous system, though in those with visual impairment, it is considered an emotionally or experientially based avoidance (Pogrund & Fazzi 2002). While tactual defensiveness has the potential to be present in all children, those with vision deficiencies rely on their sense of touch much more than someone with a healthy visual system. These babies depend on tactile exploration, systematic searching, and exploring the physical qualities of objects in order to learn about function, shape, weight, composition, and texture (Pogrund & Fazzi 2002).

Since touch is so important, what is considered “typical” in terms of developing acceptance of various textures for babies? While some of this information was not explicitly found in literature from the field of visual impairments, the Oregon Project for Visually Impaired & Blind Preschool Children: Skills Inventory (Oregon Project) lends insight. The following traits are listed in the birth- to one-year-old range: mostly open tolerating a variety of tactile input, plays with a variety of food. Found within the one- to two-year-old range includes: walks on grass and a variety of surfaces, participates in messy activities (Anderson, Boigon, David, & DeWaard, 2007). The Oregon Project provides insight into developmental norms for children with visual impairments.

Babies must build knowledge of the world around them or what is in it. One study notes that “infants who are blind- like sighted infants- open their hands from the third month of life onward, but, unlike sighted infants, they do not  begin to engage in exploring and grasping behavior” (Bambring 2007). Bambring points out that children with visual impairments require encouragement to explore their world, a critical prerequisite to learning.

That being the expectation, how do sighted babies and toddlers resolve their dislike of certain textures? Perhaps the lack of specific information indicates that, for those with typical vision, it is learned incidentally and no specific interventions are needed because the transition just happens. Sighted children see others touching things. They observe the object or substance from a distance. Translating that into terms relevant to young children with visual impairments, it seems reasonable to assume that providing young children with opportunities to experience textures might help avoid the development of tactile defensiveness.  For example, we can tell babies and toddlers when parents or siblings are touching/interacting with tactually scary items/substances. In addition, we can give the child indirect experience with such substances (as a sighted child would do with vision) by allowing the child with a visual impairment to smell or listen to the item. We can also allow the child to use a barrier such as a mitten, glove, or sock when feeling something. As stated earlier, Pogrund and Fazzi suggested the aversion is due to emotions and experiences; therefore, promoting positive emotions and giving children various ways to experience new things are crucial to overcoming tactile defensiveness. Early interventionists should be sure to include such practices as they are serving families when their young have visual impairments.


Anderson, S., Boigon, S., Davis, K., deWaard, C. (2007). The Oregon Project for Preschool Children Who are Blind or Visually Impaired. Medford, OR: Southern Oregon Education Service District.

Brambring, Michael. (2007). Divergent  Development  of  Manual Skills  in  Children  Who  Are  Blind or  Sighted. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (April), 212-225.

Ferrell, Kay Alicyn. (2011). Reach Out and Teach: Helping Your Child Who is Visually Impaired Learn and Grow. New York, NY: AFB Press, American Foundation for the Blind.

Pogrund, R. & Fazzi, D. (2002). Early Focus, Working with Young Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired and Their Families. New York, NY: AFB Press, American Foundation for the Blind.