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When Touch Gets Too Touchy


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Most people don’t think much about their socks, but for eight-year-old Suri W., they are all-important today. The seams at her toes are terribly irritating. Suri spent an inordinate amount of time this morning getting them into a perfect position. But now, three hours later, they apparently shifted. The teacher’s voice has receded into the background; a friend’s request for a pencil has gone unheeded. The itch has taken over.

This is not an isolated incident. Things like this happen to Suri all the time. Suri can’t take sock seams, finger paints, crumby fingers, glaring sunlight, and swings – and she absolutely abhors itchy wool. She is super-sensitive to touch. Just now, her teacher, sensing that Suri is tuned out of the lesson, tapped her lightly on the shoulder. Suri recoiled from the gentle touch, leaving her teacher wondering if she did something wrong. To Suri, the teacher’s touch felt shocking – more like a slap than a gentle pat. Little wonder, than, that she recoiled.

Suri suffers from a form of Sensory Processing Disorder. Her sense of touch is over-responsive. The disorder affects her life, in every way – by distracting her from schoolwork, holding her back from joining her classmates in activities, and filling her life with pain and frustration.

Sensory Processing is the way the Central Nervous System processes information coming from the five senses. Good sensory processing is vital to human health and functioning. It is the way we take in messages from our bodies and surroundings, the way we interpret those messages, and the way we organize our responses to those messages.

When a person has a Sensory Processing Disorder, the central nervous system is out of sync. It interprets messages too intensely or too weakly – or confuses messages about space, leaving its victims unsure of where they, their limbs, and the people and things around them are situated in space.

Children with the disorder are missing the “sixth sense” that makes the world make sense. They often can’t understand the world around them – and the world can’t understand them. Learning can be difficult. So can acquiring gross and fine motor skills. Body language is a major issue.

Experts say that 90% of communication is not verbal – but children with sensory processing disorders often can’t interpret body language. They don’t notice other people’s anger, boredom, or shock – a problem that understandably creates major social and behavioral issues. Many children who suffer from a Sensory Processing Disorder are misunderstood and mislabeled – with disastrous results.

“My teacher used to give me a ‘look’, and expect me to stop whatever I was doing,” says seventeen-year-old Malky R. “She thought I was being chutzpadik, but I honestly didn’t understand that when she stared at me with pursed lips, she expected me to stop what I was doing. I can’t tell you how many times I was punished – but I never understood why.”

“I also had a problem with friends,” Malky adds. “I would lean close to a classmate’s face, or keep tapping her arm, and never notice that she was feeling uncomfortable

Seven-year-old Toby also suffers a Sensory Processing Disorder.

“Toby is so sluggish,” says her mother. “The world just goes on around her. It’s like she’s not an active participant. She doesn’t have friends, because she doesn’t do anything. When she does get up, she is so clumsy; she falls over her own two feet. She is having trouble reading, too. My pediatrician says that she is a healthy child who is just uncoordinated and unmotivated, but I think there has to be an explanation.”

There is. Toby suffers from Under Responsivity – when the central nervous system under-responds to messages. She is suffering academically and socially.

Moishy W. suffers from a different sensory disorder.

“Moishy can’t get enough of things,” says his mother, Leah. “He splashes in the muddiest puddles, turns the music up to blasting, and loves touching the radiator – even when it feels dangerously hot. Yesterday, I found him pricking himself with a pin. He seemed to enjoy the sensation of pain.”

Moishy is a sensory seeker. He craves sensory input, and seeks intense sensations. He doesn’t mind things that others would find irritating or painful – and doesn’t seem to notice normal sensations. This creates many problems with issues such as hygiene. Moishy doesn’t seem to feel dirt on his face and hands – a huge social issue. His behavior is also often dangerous.

Moishy’s sensory issues carry over to his vestibular system – the system that lets a person sense direction, and his relationship to it. Up and down; right and left; fast and slow, are all issues. Since Moishy is a sensory seeker, he loves action and speed. His rebbe calls him a “troublemaker.” His mother is extremely frustrated.

“Yesterday, Moishy rode his bike down a steep hill. I saw him speeding, peyos flying, and this picture of sheer joy on his face. Then he hit a rock – and flew off his bike. I was afraid to look – but Moishy just picked himself up and laughed. To him, it was fun.”

A child whose vestibular system is over responsive will behave the opposite way. He will get dizzy on a swing, be a poor traveler, and trip often. Such children often suffer from social issues, because they can’t seem to get things “right.”

“Sruly is so clumsy; he’s always spilling or dropping something. At breakfast this morning, he broke a glass, spilled milk all over his sister, and banged into his brother on his way to the fridge – all in the space of two minutes. The kids yelled at him and called him a klutz. I couldn’t bear to see the look on his face. He looked so defeated.”

The problem is worse, in school.

“When Chanie’s teacher told her to glue sequins onto the class banner, the girls in her group groaned. A minute later, she banged her elbow into the plate of glue. Her classmates were furious, as they watched the thick white puddle spread onto the blue velvet.

“I knew something was going to happen when Chanie joined us,” a girl said.”Now we won’t win the contest.”

Sruli’s and Chanie’s sensory issues have serious social implications. Their clumsiness causes frustration and anger, and makes them the perfect target for teasing and bullying.

Often, children with a sensory processing disorder are misdiagnosed as having ADD or ADHD. Although the conditions sometimes overlap, they are separate conditions.

Sensory Processing Disorder is very common. Experts say that as many as 5% of children have some form. The percentage is much higher amongst autistic children. The good news is that the condition is treatable. Social skills training, reading help, and tutoring can teach a child to overcome the problem, and become successful, academically and socially.

Malky, the girl who misunderstood body language, was extremely successful in overcoming her disorder.

“For me, it was a matter of training,” she says.”Once I learned that my behaviors were annoying, I was able to avoid them. My whole life changed,” she says.

All children with Sensory Processing Disorder need to be evaluated by a professional. Conditioning and training can help them learn to respond to sensory stimulation appropriately, and to develop an appropriate sense of themselves and others in the world.

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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