Touch and Autism
Autism, at its core, is a social disorder. Autistic people have a hard time understanding implicit social rules, following them, and forming healthy friendships. One of the most natural behaviors — connecting with other people — is difficult, almost impossible, for autistic children and adults. That’s what autism is.
Autistic children may have impaired neural response to touch. In other words, an inborn inability to respond correctly to touch may be one of the causes of autism. Does that mean that overuse of touch (as encouraged in attachment parenting, for example) can reduce the effects of autism later in life? Possibly so, and there is research that points to this being a distinct possibility.
But it’s not just about autistic kids. It’s about all of us — kids and adults alike.
Touch for Infants, and Children
Institutionalized children suffer from delays in cognitive development and physical growth. That’s not news to anyone. But perhaps the issue isn’t lack of maternal care per se, but rather lack of sensory stimulation? Just ten minutes a day significantly increases these children’s’ chance at survival and health.
Infants and children need to be touched in order to grow and develop. Premature infants benefit from “kangaroo care” — being put skin-to-skin against their parent’s chest. And in the mother’s absence, touch reduces the cortisol levels in worried infants.
Even though most of the research concentrates on preemies and adults, a new study shows (not surprisingly) that when preschool children are touched on the back or shoulder, they are more compliant and exhibit better delayed gratification skills.
For grade-school students, a teacher’s touch increases classroom participation, attentiveness, and overall performance. American kids are more aggressive than their French peers. They’re also touched less. Coincidence? It could be, but research would suggest not.
Contrary to popular thought, mothers don’t have stronger physiological or hormonal connection to their infants, than fathers do. Nonapeptide oxytocin (OT) is the hormone that aids bonding of parent-child pairs in mammals. When researchers checked the post-birth hormone levels of first-time mothers and fathers, they found that the maternal and paternal levels were interrelated. (It is true, however, that the hormone levels in mothers and fathers were stimulated by different things.)
And while it’s well-known that mothers can easily recognize their infants based on smell alone, it’s less well known that fathers recognize their infants based on touch. Want to know something else? Infants release pheromones causing those who hold them and coddle them — to forge a strong bond. You know the “new baby” smell? It’s pheromones. Not Johnson’s shampoo.
Touch for Adults
You’ve probably heard of some of the positive effects of touch: They include decreased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels, as well as increased oxytocin (the “love hormone”) levels. In other words — surprise, surprise — touch relaxes you and lowers stress. In fact, moderate pressure massage increases attentiveness and immune system efficiency, and decreases depression.
People bond through touch.
Think about it. Negative touch, such as abuse, causes a whole boatload of emotional damage. Most of what we know about touch, we’ve learned by watching those who were touch-deprived. And the influence of touch on social and emotional development is clear.
Intimacy is touch, in one of its most basic forms. IVF, or conception sans touch, is still spanking-new, and if IVF were the only way to reproduce, humanity would have died out long ago. But what happens when intimacy is abused? Cases of martial rape, “regular” rape, child molestation, and so forth? All of these are examples of abusive touch. And all of them are incredibly damaging to the victim. For that matter, so are slaps, bites, and other forms of negative interpersonal touch.
No-Touch Policies: Helpful or Harmful?
At its core, a no-touch policy assumes that the toucher is liable to sexually harass the touch-ee. I mean, we’re not worried about the soccer coach giving the student a black eye, are we? No. We’re worried that the soccer coach might molest the child. But no-touch policies don’t actually prevent abuse. Instead, they give our kids that message that all touch is bad. And unfortunately, that kind of message can lead to touch starvation.
People who are starving for touch will take — or give — any touch, positive or negative. Because touch is an essential biological need. A person who has nothing to eat will steal food. And a person who has no one to touch him, will “steal” touch. He’ll steal the best, most powerful touch he can get — even if doing so severely harms himself or the other person.
Touch is like magic. Used properly, it works miracles. Used improperly, it causes an enormous amount of hard-to-fix damage.
The bottom line is that touch is an incredibly effective form of communication. Touch is the best way to comfort someone. And it integrates well with other forms of communication, such as facial expressions or verbal cues.
A glance, a verbal response, and a shoulder shrug – even a text message or a letter — can all be misinterpreted. But if you’re close enough – physically and emotionally — to touch someone, it may be the most effective way to communicate: research shows that touch accurately communicates emotions about 78% of the time.
Our society isn’t perfect, and abusive touch has to be stopped. But preventing abuse shouldn’t come at the expense of our children’s physical and emotional health – or our own. So go home tonight and make sure your kids get five hugs each. Make sure they know it’s okay to ask for a hug if they’re sad. And show them that you know how important touch is, too.
What do you think? Does touch come easily to you, or is it more difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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