Autism and the sense of touch

Sensory processing differences in Autism includes how things feel

We rely on our sense of touch to tell us about the world around us. Like all our other senses, processing of the input we get through how something feels to us can be skewed, from being super stimulating, irritating, distressing, soothing, or simply not feeling much at all.

The differences in autistic sensory processing can cause “every day” experiences of things we touch or feel to be distressing or even painful.

On the other hand, we can experience pain or other physical stimulus on much lower levels than what is considered the “normal” or “average” (neurotypical) experience.

Textures of food cause many issues with eating, from the way it feels when it touches our lips, feels in our mouth, or how it feels as we handle it (slimy, gritty, lumpy, greasy, sticky, chunky, sharp, hard, thick), food textures and temperatures can stand out as extremely uncomfortable experiences to many of us. This becomes a problem if we are forced to “clean our plate” or to try things that are extremely uncomfortable to us. Our hesitation to try new foods may be directly linked to fear that the taste or texture will be overwhelming to us.

Textures of clothing we must wear can often give us much distress. Is the fabric knotty, rough, too smooth and slippery, does it have seams in places where it feels uncomfortable? We can be super sensitive to pressure of restricting collars, cuffs, waistbands and the like.

Some of us respond to snug lycra or other close fitting clothing with a great deal of pleasure and comfort and others (like me) avoid that ‘squeezing’ slick texture due to extreme discomfort of being “touched all over at once”.

Some of us can be absolutely unaware of any clothing issues never notice that our shoes are giving our feet blisters, that the garment is far too tight or loose, etc etc.

Textures of the things we touch throughout the day can be distressing, from the utensils we use to eat, from the carpet we walk on barefoot, to the fabric upholstering the furniture, to the sidewalk, street, lawn, sand on the beach, the feel of the bath or shower under our feet or as we touch the enclosure surrounding it, the plastic or fabric shower curtain, the texture of the door we must open and close to enter or leave the hours or our rooms, etc etc.

We can become desperate to avoid the sensory overload of touching or experiencing the feel of many things throughout the day.

This sensory experience may well begin in infancy, long before we have words to describe the distress we are experiencing and probably is the cause of much mystification among parents trying to figure out what is distressing us children.

Sense of touch/ the way something “feels” is also involved in our ability to use tools, to do things as simple as walking or sitting, lying down, or standing. We use the sense of touch to help us know our surroundings, how much pressure to apply with our feet to push ourselves along as we walk, run, how much pressure to apply when we give hugs, give a handshake, or a kiss!
We need to be able to feel the pressure we apply and learn to judge how much to use when we open and close doors and drawers, open and close a jar lid, use eating utensils, lift and replace any objects from the surface it is resting on (think about how many times we do this daily).

We use touch and the way things “feel” every day in so many ways. If having my hair brushed feels like a thousand razors against my scalp every day, I will fight that sensation with all my might. I am not just being stubborn and willful, it HURTS!

If I avoid washing my hands because I hate the feel of that cold water running between my fingers, can we find another way to get my hands clean?

Most times we encounter resistance to things like baths, showers, shampoos, getting dressed, putting on our shoes, or using certain utensils or products for self care or household chores, it is not out of stubborn will, it is because these things are causing discomfort. Even as grown adults, we may not be able to explain for ourselves, we only know we hate it and want to avoid it because of the way it feels to us.

Children and many autistic adults are famous for resisting, but how many of the struggles we face might have the roots of resistance in pain, discomfort, or distress caused by the way we experience the task we are asked to deal with?

Even if you are grown up and living on your own, are there things in life that you avoid or simply hate?

There may be ways to make the experience better by adjusting the way it feels.

If you hate to bathe because of the rapid change of temperatures on your skin as you undress and how it feels to have the shower change temperatures, if you hate the feel of the water running over your face.
If you hate the feel of your wet hair when you shampoo, etc etc, there are other ways to get the job done. Think of the things you hate the feel of the most (might take some sorting to recognize what exactly is causing the distress) and make small changes to avoid those sensations.

If you hate the feel of using a washcloth, can you substitute a sponge or one of those nifty new silicone body brushes?

Will you be more willing to wash and dry off if you don’t use those stiff scratchy towels but instead dry with flannel, or velour/soft fabric of some sort?

Lots of sensations can be changed to make the experience better, regardless of what we struggle with.

We can often change the way something “feels” by using a substitute or doing things differently.

On the other side of this question is the “non sensitive” person who doesn’t notice much about what they may be feeling.(not emotions, the way something feels to our bodies physically) .

Blisters and sores on feet or pressure sores from sitting or lying too long in one spot, cuts and bruises which seem to suddenly appear with no memory of how they got there, even limping and not recognizing we have broken a toe or another bone…. lack of “feeling” or recognizing the feel of something as important and needing attention can sometimes be helped by occupational therapies which help us interpret what we are feeling, and helping us find and recognize when something hurts or is not right.

What is interesting to me is that hyper sensitivities and hypo sensitivities can exist in the same person or can vary with time, place, experience, even from hour to hour or day to day.

If you are not diagnosed yet with autism, the way you experience things you touch, or that touch you, might be another clue to being autistic.