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Why Do Some Individuals with ASD Like Physical Touch, while Others Don't?


Touch is a natural instinct that provides emotional security. People with autism “perceive the non-social aspects of touch, but they don’t perceive the significance.” (Pelphrey, 2015).

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) commonly experience challenges with their social development, such as difficulties in developing play skills, communicating with others, or expressing their emotions, needs, and ideas in conventional ways. For example, some children with ASD may appear disinterested when engaged in play or in response to affection from parents or loved ones in general.

What does a dislike towards physical touch mean?

Touch aversion in autism can be a form of discomfort for some. This response can be misinterpreted as a lack of comfort with affection. However, children with autism are able to experience and express affection. They simply experience and express it differently from others. Researchers have discovered that certain regions in the brain normally stimulated by social touch are less reactive in people with autism (Yale, 2015). They proposed that touch may not be interpreted as socially relevant by some with autism. People with autism also exhibit differences in nerve fibre activity when touched (Spectrum, 2019).


A touch that would be comforting and soothing to someone without autism can sometimes prove uncomfortable and even distressing to someone with ASD. This is just one manifestation of sensory processing differences in individuals with autism. Challenges with sensory processing also account for sensitivity to certain sights, sounds, and feelings which can easily become overstimulating, overwhelming, or frightening to children with autism. It would be inaccurate to imply that all individuals with autism have an aversion to touch. Some enjoy it immensely, and others may enjoy it only in certain contexts or forms, such as a preference for deep pressure versus light brushing. Like most traits of autism, a person’s response to touch is individual and should be respected and never forced by others.

How we can express affection to children with ASD

Since some children with autism exhibit a minimal response or aversion to touch, parents may wonder how best to express affection to their child. The answer depends on what makes the child feel safe and comfortable.


While parents should not force physical touch on their child if it makes their child uneasy, it is likely that a child would still appreciate the emotional warmth, company, and care their parents provide them, even if they may not show it in the ways their parents expect. For example, by looking out for one’s child, providing for them, being there to support them in times of need, and engaging with their favourite activities, interests, and passions, parents are already providing the love, affection, and care that their child needs.


Parents can observe which activities their child seems to gravitate towards, or what their child responds to well emotionally, and work to sharpen those positive responses. Offering emotional warmth and support is crucial, even if the child does not show an obvious outward response. Having a conversation with one’s child about their interests, watching their favourite movie or film together, or playing their favourite game together can signify a lot to them, and communicates that a parent cares about them and wants to understand them better.


How parents can help others express care and affection

As emphasised earlier, it is essential to recognise how ASD uniquely manifests in each child and to adjust one’s expectations and parental strategies to make those that are on the spectrum to feel safe and supported. Tailoring one’s behaviour and expectations is an ongoing process for parents. Finding what works and what doesn’t through innovative, and sometimes laborious experiences. As parents learn more about how their child experiences the world, and what makes them feel safe and loved, they can communicate that important information to friends and family.


Friends and family may not always understand why a child with autism may appear disinterested or not exhibit affection in social situations. Parents should communicate the particular difficulties their child faces to friends and family, such as a sensitivity to touch or to certain social situations. Parents can also help others to better interact with their child socially by giving them suggestions on activities or topics of conversation that the child enjoys. Some parents find it difficult to have these discussions with others outside the household, but talking about your child’s behaviours and tendencies is a skill that develops with time and experience and can help others understand those with ASD better in the process as well.


Written by: Angelyn Fletcher


References:


Musser, G. (2019, May 29). ‘I will feel actual rage.' unusual responses to kind touches could help ... Science.org. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.science.org/content/article/i-will-feel-actual-rage-unusual-responses-kind-touches-could-help-explain-autism-traits. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2077


Schaaf, R.C., Toth-Cohen, S., Johnson, S.L., Outten, G., & Benevides, T.W. (2011). The everyday routines of families of children with autism: Examining the impact of sensory processing difficulties on the family. Autism, 15(3), 373-389. DOI: 10.1177/1362361310386505.

Szalavitz, M. (2012, March 19). Understanding why autistic people may reject social touch. Time. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://healthland.time.com/2012/03/19/understanding-why-autistic-people-may-reject-social-touch/


Tomchek, S., Little, L., Myers, J., & Dunn, W. (2018). Sensory subtypes in preschool-aged children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(6), 2139-2147. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-018-3468-2.


Trevisan, D.A., Bowering, M. & Birmingham, E. Alexithymia, but not autism spectrum disorder, may be related to the production of emotional facial expressions. Molecular Autism 7, 46 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-016-0108-6


Wigham, S., Rodgers, J., South, M., McConachie, H., & Freeston, M. (2015). The interplay between sensory processing abnormalities, intolerance of uncertainty, anxiety and restricted and repetitive behaviours in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(4), 943-952. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-016-2721-9.



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