Many people assume that children with autism avoid being touched, but this is not always the case. I have worked with many children diagnosed with autism that love to cuddle, give hugs, and appropriately engage in tactile stimuli. Children with autism that have difficulties with tactile stimuli, most likely have a coexisting sensory processing disorder.
Symptoms of underresponsivity to touch may include(1):
• Unaware of touch sensations unless intense • Failure to notice when messy or when clothes are twisted • Little response to scrapes, bruises, or cuts • Indifference to temperature changes • Failure to notice spicy or hot food • Oblivious to weather conditions, such as wind or rain • Require intense stimulation from the environment to become engaged • Not realizing the pain others feel often leading to rough play and hurting others unintentionally
Sensory seeking tactile symptoms may include(1):
• Frequently craves touch, tickles, back massages, and hugs • May engage in self injury, such as biting, pinching, or head banging • Need to touch and feel everything in the environment that other children understand not to touch • Twirl hair in fingers • Seeks activities that involve messy play • Likes to touch soft or smooth surfaces • Likes the feeling of objects that have vibration • May cram food in mouth when eating • High tolerance for heat and cold temperatures • Prefer spicy food • Frequently remove socks and shoes
Other signs of a sensory disorder related to tactile dysfunction:
• Poor fine motor skills and problems completing tasks, such as zipping pants and other fasteners • Difficulties using scissors, pencils, crayons or silverware • Struggles to define physical characteristics of objects in terms of shape, size, texture, temperature or weight. • May be afraid of the dark • Problems identifying objects just by feeling them.
Treatment for sensory processing disorders, related to tactile dysfunction, will usually include occupational therapy with sensory integration. This may include using the wilbarger brushing protocol or desensitization with exposure to lots of varying tactile stimuli. Getting your child involved in activities, such as finger painting, sand play, play doh and reading texture books can also be part of therapy.
1. Kranowitz, C. S. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorders. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
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