Saturday, June 4, 2011

Autism & Touch



In the life of any individual exposure to healthy touch is vitally important. Yet for people with autism, the desire to be touched seems almost nonexistent if not downright fought against.  I have wondered, therefore, if sensory deprivation could be the result of the lack of touch in an autistic child and if so, does this explain, or at least contribute to sensory overload/problems seen in autistic people as they age?

Tactile stimulation, according to Dr.'s Conrad Baars and Anna Terruwe, is at the bottom of a sensory pyramid, so to speak. Touch, taste, and smell are the most primitive of the external senses (Healing the Unaffirmed, p. 49), while sight and hearing are considered higher senses. In other words, if the tactile sense does not sufficiently develop, then theoretically, all the other senses, including sight and hearing will fail to develop properly as well since they successively build on top of one another.

I am well aware that to most people the fact that autistic children need but reject touch is a no-brainer. However, in my case, the issue wasn't whether or not I wanted my parents to touch me. I did. The problem was that their own bodies were something of a sensory nightmare to me. Had they made some simple changes, I believe that we would have been able to connect with each other emotionally through physical contact. 

Here are just a few things I recall: My father always shaved, yet his 5 o'clock shadow felt like miniature razor blades digging into my face when he hugged me. That really hurt! And both my parents loved (and I mean loved!) to wear wool sweaters in the winter. Can we say itchy? And my father's aftershave? Well, to my nose, it's like he took a bath in it, so oftentimes when he held his arms out for me, I turned and ran the other way. 

My life was not entirely devoid of touch, however. I can think of a few people who were able to break through and hold me for long periods of time. I am thankful for those people because in my opinion, they made all the difference in the world. 

I know there are those who place weights in vests and quilts to help autistic children feel better, but if at all possible, I think it's best when skin to skin contact is made between people. Positive emotional connection (communicated through touch) changes brain chemistry. This in turn may possibly alleviate the symptoms of autism as the child gets older. 

I'm not saying you have to hold your child for hours on end to see some sort of positive change. This can be abusive, actually. But what smells good (lotions, soaps, deodorant, aftershave) to you may be nauseating to your child. And what feels good on your skin, in terms of clothing, might make your daughter feel like she's trying to warm up to a cactus. Changing some of these things, as well as quieting yourself down when you hold your child, may produce some of the results you are hoping for. 

Embracing others and being embraced is healing. I love to give and receive hugs.