Wipe! Wipe!

Some of you probably thought this post would be about potty training, but no. This is for all of you with children who don’t like to get their hands dirty. Some children are oblivious to messes and don’t mind having a dirty hand or face. Other kids become distressed if even one finger has come into contact with a substance they don’t like to feel. I have worked with children who remind me of Monk, the obsessive compulsive detective who calls for his assistant to hand him a wipe whenever he shakes hands or touches something he deems undesirable. Recently I was sitting with a young boy who was eating a snack, and he got some frosting on his hand. In a near panic, he turned to me saying, “Wipe! Wipe!” and held out his hand for help in removing the frosting as quickly as possible. Right next to him was another child totally indifferent to the feel of frosting covering her face and hands, happily licking the frosting from each finger. My son Josh was in the “Wipe!” camp when he was young, and my daughter Beckie was such a sensory seeker that she deliberately smeared food on her face and hands and loved messy art projects. Both of them needed to work on sensory processing and awareness, but today I am going to suggest a strategy for the sensory avoidant, “Wipe!” children. I didn’t want to overwhelm or traumatize my avoidant son, making future attempts to increase his tolerance even more challenging. But I did want to expand Josh’s acceptance of various textures, smells, and sensations. I knew I couldn’t just put materials out for him to explore and expect a different response from him. Josh was already doing what came naturally to him, and that was to limit or avoid his exposure to certain materials. So I put finger paints, pudding, hair gel, etc. into Ziploc bags. For some of the bags I added in small objects such as decorative erasers for added input as the materials were investigated and experienced through touch. Sometimes I double bagged to prevent leakage, and in addition to sealing the bag I added a layer or two of packing tape along the seal. Then I modeled tracing a finger over the bag, poking it with my finger, smashing it with my palm, etc. and encouraged my son to do likewise. Touching substances through a bag felt safer to him, and the limited boundaries of a Ziploc bag appeared more manageable to his young mind. Since Josh was also sensitive to smells, the bags eliminated or at least minimized odors. As Josh became comfortable with the materials in the bags, I would gradually introduce a small amount of the material without a bag. With repeated exposure over time, Josh learned to process all the sensory input and no longer avoided touching materials directly. I found, with Josh and other children I have worked with, that many children are more willing to touch a substance that I present to them on my own hand instead of on a table or piece of paper. I’m not sure if that’s because seeing it on me implies that it is safe to touch, or if it’s the skin to skin contact that is reassuring, but in any case it’s worth trying with your kids to see if it helps them as you expose them to a greater variety of sensory input

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