Touch Sensitivity and the Autistic Spectrum

As I have mentioned before, sensory sensitivities and processing problems are common in autism. This basically means that either a combination of the 5 senses or all 5 senses are processed differently leading people with autism to either avoid or seek certain sensations, noises, textures, tastes and smells. The sense that is sensitive in me is that of touch.

Like a fair number of people on the autistic spectrum, I am very sensitive to light touch. It gives me the same sensation as an insect crawling on me. I prefer deep, firm touch as this is much easier for me to process and deal with. I have always had spots on my body which are very ticklish. The one which I was best known for when I was a child was a spot on my left hip which, at one time, was so ticklish that even someone sitting next to me on that side would set me off laughing and squirming. As I have matured, this area has become a lot less ticklish for some reason. My main ticklish areas now are the soles of my feet (like 99% of people, autistic or not!) and, more unusually, the backs of my legs. The latter one I only discovered last year when having a full body massage (I can tolerate massage because it uses firm touch which my brain finds easier to process) and I couldn’t stop kicking and laughing when the therapist started massaging the backs of my legs. She told me I was the first person she had ever known to be ticklish in that area!

Touch is very complex in my life. I don’t mind being touched by people I like and trust but I absolutely hate being touched by strangers or by people who I don’t get on particularly well with. My friends at university were shocked when I went to the Summer Ball there in my final year and was getting so wound up and angry with the amount of people who were bumping into me! Like a lot of people on the spectrum, I avoid crowds wherever possible. I travel on the London Underground occasionally and always feel like I have taken 10 years off my life by the time I’ve finished because of how stressful I find it! What really winds me up about touch is the fact that so many people don’t even consider that maybe not everyone likes to be touched by someone they’ve only just met and will insist on touching someone on the arm or shoulder within minutes of meeting them. I understand that some people are tactile and like to express themselves through touch but that touch can make the recipient feel deeply uncomfortable sometimes.

The other area that touch really affects but is not that well known about is textures. There are certain foods which I will never desire to eat because the texture feels wrong in my mouth. I know autistic people who avoid fizzy drinks because the sensation of the fizz in their mouths feels wrong to them. The texture of sand on wet skin feels horrible to me and, when I am abroad on a beach holiday, I will try and do anything to avoid having to walk on the sand with wet feet. Similarly, I cannot tolerate wearing clothes made from certain textures. I have only just, in the past year or so, been able to tolerate wearing woolen jumpers with another top underneath them-I still can’t tolerate wool against my bare skin because the itching is all I can focus on. I also have a real fear of static shocks-I hate the feeling of them and, if I fear coming into contact with something that will give me one, I will pull my sleeves up over my hands before I touch the item I fear. Pulling clothes made out of nylon out of a tumble drier and getting the static from that gives me a similar feeling. I have always wondered whether my low pain threshold is related to my touch sensitivity but I don’t think they are related because I know some autistic people who are just as sensitive to touch as I am, if not more so, but who have extremely high pain thresholds.

Over the years I have got a lot better with touch. I will give and reciprocate hugs now which I wasn’t able to do for years because the touch felt too smothering. I no longer get angry when people bump into me (except if I am really tired but I think everyone gets more moody when they are tired). I will, no doubt, continue to develop even more coping strategies than I already have in order to deal with touch (an example is touching myself firmly if I have just been touched lightly and it is making me feel uncomfortable). I am sure the same is true for many people with autism, no matter where they lie on the spectrum. However, I also think that people need to consider how touch feels to someone who is sensitive to it and begin to understand why they display certain reactions. Don’t attribute it to a lack of emotion-most of the time, it is purely neurological and a sign that our sensory processing system is struggling. Please understand this and respect that we are trying our best.


2 Responses to Touch Sensitivity and the Autistic Spectrum

  1. maximusaurus says:

    As someone on the spectrum I am very sensitive to touch. Certain people who I trust I’m okay with, strangers, heck no!

  2. I had the touch thing a lot when I was younger but it seems to have calmed down a lot now that I’m older.

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