January 17, 2021

Autistic people and touch

By rosieweldon

As an autistic adult I spend far too much of my life trying to disguise myself as a neurotypical (not-autistic). One of the biggest challenges to this is touch. Not only does it ‘out’ me but it tends to get a pretty hostile response.

Imagine a gran wanting a hug that their grandchild refuses. Imagine a colleague leaning over me to show me something on my PC and I pull away. Now imagine a colleague touches my hand and I then wipe that hand on my trousers before I can stop myself. Yeah, people don’t like it.

But before we feel too sorry for the person that had to watch me wipe away their touch, let’s think about what that experience felt like to me.

As someone encroaches on my space every nerve in me spikes up. My body goes on high alert at the impending touch. As they touch my skin it jolts through me and long after they pull their hand away the touch lingers like they forcefully scraped sandpaper across my hand. My skin burns at the touch they just made. I stare at it and will the feeling to stop. They continue talking and I can’t focus because of the burning. I have no choice but to wipe the feeling away so I can try and focus. After doing this the touch remains as an irritation but at least one I can try to block out.

It might make that person feel a bit sad that I wiped away their touch, but it is downright distressful for me not to do it.

If you know someone is autistic there is a high chance that they are touch averse in some ways, please don’t touch them unless you have express permission. If you do, then apologise and let them know they can do whatever they need to ‘reset’ the touch. Generally, if someone apologises for touching me, I take that as an acceptance for me to wipe my hand on something to take away the intense feeling.

Some of us prefer light touch and others prefer firm touch. Some of us are touch averse completely and others okay with touch. I am touch averse to all but about three people in my entire life. Three people out of thousands I have come across, have not caused me a feeling of discomfort at their touch (one of which is the above picture! Little man 🙂 ).

The hardest thing about being touch averse is seeing the look in my mum’s eyes as I put distance between us or wipe away a touch. It is so important to realise there is zero connection between how much I love and adore someone to being touch averse to them. It honestly seems to be like a random lottery at this point. One of the three was genuinely someone I met on that very same that that I realised I was not touch averse to them, go figure.

When you add being touch averse to thinks like sensory overload in crowds it can get pretty bad. When I am experiencing sensory overload my reaction to touch is heightened. Ditto with meltdowns. Trying to touch autistic people when they are in these states is generally a bad idea but trying to touch a touch averse one may very well get a reaction of them pushing you away. I have no headspace to worry about your touchy feelings (pun intended) when I’m struggling.

Please don’t take offense if we can’t hug you. Please don’t push us to endure touch that makes us feel uncomfortable.

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