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Stephen Borgman
Stephen Borgman

Touch and the Autism Spectrum

How to help those on the autism spectrum who have touch aversion.

"Persons with autism may exhibit repeated body movements (hand flapping, rocking), unusual responses to people or attachments to objects and resistance to changes in routines. Individuals may also experience sensitivities in the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste." —Autism Society of Delaware, 2005

Here is an often too common scenario:

An NT (neurotypical) mother (or father) has a child on the autism spectrum. The parent wants to show love to her child. But she has a secret. Her young one hits her, turns away from her, and does not want to even be close to her. The NT mother wonders, what is she doing wrong?

Or here's another scenario:

Aspie guy meets NT girl. NT girl wants to show her affection to her boyfriend. She comes up behind him and gives him a hug. He stiffens and pushes her away. She is bewildered, confused, and sad. Why doesn't he want her hug?

To all of you on the autism spectrum, I have a request: Please be patient with us. We have a lot to learn.

Fortunately, there is more and more information available about autism characteristics. One of these has to do with strong sensitivity to touch. And it's not just touch. It can be light, sound, and smells.

But the focus of this article will be how many individuals with autism experience touch, some of the challenges with touch, and how both individuals with autism and individuals without can understand and relate to each other better in light of the facts.

Why the Difficulty with Touch?

I don't know. I have to admit that I'm open to your comments on this one. In fact, it may be the topic of a future article. I had the same question, and I read a lot of different hypotheses, but I'm not sure that any one of them is conclusive. I could be wrong. Occupational therapists, please let me know if you know of any new research.

Suffice it to say that even on the autism spectrum, each individual may be different in how he or she experiences touch, light, sound, or smell.

Common Autism Experiences with Touch

I sincerely thank some individuals on the autism spectrum forum at Wrong Planet for sharing some of their experiences with touch.

Most of the individuals who responded indicated the following issues with touch:

  • Light touch, in general, seemed to be more unpleasant than deep touch.
  • Unexpected touch, even from a loved one, could be very unpleasant.
  • Touch from distant acquaintances or from strangers, even if meant to be reassuring, is not. (Come to think of it, this sounds like a pretty good practice for anyone, right?)

What Touch Aversion Might Look Like

  • Your child tells you on no uncertain terms that all the tags MUST be cut out of her clothing.
  • Your child may resist having his hair combed or teeth brushed because of the very uncomfortable sensations.
  • Your partner might pull away from you when you try to hug her or kiss her.
  • Children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum may only be able to tolerate foods with certain types of textures (e.g., crunchy versus smooth, hard versus "slimy").

Solutions for Sensory Issues

  • Brian King, diagnosed with Asperger's and father of three kids on the spectrum, wrote a fantastic article called 6 Simple Sensory Solutions for the Autism Spectrum. Read the full article for ways that you can use a rolling pin, a hanging bar, a bean bag chair, a back pack with weights, an indoor trampoline, or a wall to regulate your tactile system! One of his own personal favorite relaxation and de-stressing techniques is to have his wife or kids given him the rolling pin treatment. They take a regular rolling pin and slowly give him a deep pressure massage while he is lying down on his stomach.
  • Weighted vests can often bring a deep sense of calm and relaxation for kids, teens, and adults alike.
  • Weighted blankets have also been shown to be very comforting to children and adults on the autism spectrum.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy can also be a helpful way to get professional help with any touch aversion issues that may be causing a lot of stress or pain in your life.

Education and Communication

If you are a parent or partner who does not have autism, take the time and show that you care by making the commitment to become a student of autism spectrum facts and characteristics.

For example, just reading this article may help you separate yourself from your autism loved one's sensory issues. In other words, maybe you're not disgusting, loud, annoying, and unbearable to be around, but rather, your partner or child is wired differently, and has varying tolerance for different sounds, smells, and touch.

For example, I have often been mystified as to why certain loved ones with autism spectrum conditions seemed so irritable and stressed out.

But now that I understand some of these facts about sensory challenges, I think of it this way. What if I couldn't stand hearing someone scratch their nails on a chalkboard? Now imagine hearing this all day continuously. Do you think I might be stressed out?

If you are an individual with autism, be equally open to getting some relief and learning how to navigate around some of your touch issues. As I learned from my acquaintances at Wrong Planet, it helps for parents and kids, boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. to talk to each other and learn what works and what does not work.

About the Author
Stephen Borgman

Stephen Borgman is a psychotherapist who frequently works with neurodiverse children and adults.

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