We have all experienced invasion of personal space by others. This can be manifested in different ways such as standing too close, inappropriate or excessive body contact (i.e. touching). While people with ASD are typically characterised to be averse to sensory input which includes touch, there exists the other end of the spectrum where they would exhibit inappropriate or excessive touching. If your child seems to be like this and you would like to find out more about why, continue to read on to understand more.
Our Brains are Built Differently
As we all know and understand, being diagnosed with ASD typically means that a person lacks social and communication skills. Social touch, where the touch involves another person, is a component of social skills that also has to be learnt. Appropriate social touch requires the understanding of the concept of personal space or social distance, which is the distance surrounding a person, and that distance differs for different groups of people (e.g. strangers, acquaintances, friends, family).
For the majority of us, whenever someone else stands too close to us, or when someone that we are not that comfortable with touches us, we would experience these feelings of discomfort and attempt to escape that situation if possible. These feelings of discomfort are generated from a collection of cells in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our core fear system, and is loosely known as the ‘emotional centre’ of our brain. It was found that the amygdala is an essential part of a pathway in the brain involved in the learning or expression of behaviours.
As a neurodevelopment condition, ASD typically comes with a dysfunctional amygdala. As a result, emotional experiences are not perceived in a typical way and many social concepts are not learnt as easily. Social concepts like personal space are no different. This means that children with ASD would most likely not experience the same feelings of discomfort when personal space is being invaded, and they would not understand the concept of personal space in the same way as the rest of us. Simply put, your child may be touching you and others excessively because he/she does not know how it feels like for your personal space to be invaded!
Behaviours Serve a Function
A child cries when he/she is either hungry, sleepy, or wants attention. A child shouts when he/she is angry. A child runs around when he/she is bored. Every behaviour serves a function. Like every behaviour, touching is more than just the act of touching. It serves to satisfy a certain need that a child has.
You could try a simple behavioural analysis using the Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence (ABC) Model. Antecedent refers to what happens before your child touches you or others repeatedly, and Consequence refers to what happens after your child does that behaviour.
For instance, your child might be unstimulated and bored. You could identify it when your child seems to be in a daze and staring into space. In this situation, your child may begin to exhibit some excessive touching behaviour towards you or others. After which, the most natural response would be a reaction towards your child in the form of attention, play, or anything that can alleviate your child’s boredom. This would likely reinforce your child’s touching behaviour, which encourages this behaviour when he/she is bored in the future.
In this case, what you can try is to physically stop your child’s touching behaviour, and teach him/her to use words to tap and address the person, and communicate his/her needs such as: “I want to play.” If your child is nonverbal, you could try teaching to replace excessive touching with just one or two taps.
It is understandable to feel a certain way, especially when you can sense that others are uncomfortable with your child’s touching behaviour. Understanding the behaviour from your child’s perspective is a good step to take towards if you wish for that behaviour to be modified. Most importantly, let’s strive to accept rather than shame.
Written by: Tiffany
Baron-Cohen, S., Ring H.A., Wheelwright, S., Bullmore, E.T., Brammer, M.J., Simmons, A. & Williams, S.C. (1999) Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: an fMRI study. Eur J Neurosci. 1999 Jun;11(6):1891-8.