A few weeks ago I wrote a broad post briefly covering the many different types of sensory inputs all people experience, and how these different systems may impact autistic people who perceive sensory input differently (you can read it by clicking here). In it I promised I would go more in-depth on each of the different categories, and so today’s post is about the sense of touch, or should I say the many different senses within the category of touch.
I don’t know who came up with the idea to make the tags on shirts out of the stiffest, roughest possible material and then attach them with poky nylon thread to the trim that runs right along the neck, but I would vote it one of the worst product design fails ever. For me at least, that would be the case. Tags (and some sock seems for that matter) may as well be made of cactus spines from the way I feel them. This is because of the same reason why I can only wear clothes of specific materials, specific brands of shoes, why I have so many food sensitivities, and why whenever I get a haircut (something I’ve been avoiding over the past year) I have to bring a second shirt to put on because it feels like the little clipped hairs poke painfully into my skin. It’s because I, due to my autistic neurology, experience the sense of touch differently.
The interesting thing about the sense of touch though is that it’s far more nuanced than most people realize. Sure, it’s one of the classic “five senses,” but what may surprise most is that what we consider “touch” is actually a conglomeration of multiple different senses that are each processed by the brain differently.
Light Touch vs. Deep Touch
The sense of light touch (when something brushes against or gently pushes up against your skin) and the sense of deep touch (when something deeply presses into your skin) are entirely separate. They are detected by entirely different types of receptors and are processed differently in the brain. As such, it is extremely common for autistic people to have different types of either over or under sensitivities to light touch verses deep touch. Also, as with any other sense, it is also possible to both under and over sensitive to the same sense at different times depending on circumstance.
People who are sensory avoidant of light touch may have difficulties with specific textures touching their skin, and this can be especially hard for that person when it comes to clothing. The first time I ever tried on a baseball glove I couldn’t handle the leather seem touching my skin in any way shape or fashion. We (and I say we because I am generally sensory avoidant in this area) may not like to handle objects or materials that are of the *wrong* texture and also may be extra sensitive to breezes from the wind or manmade objects blowing against our skin. We may also not like to be touched. It’s really uncomfortable when people touch my arm or shoulder when talking to me; it makes me anxious, it’s very uncomfortable, and I wish people would stop touching me. It’s actually really difficult being sensitive to light touch. The whole world feels like its made of sandpaper and ectoplasm sometimes, and it’s really hard to get away from.
So, what can be done to help ease this sensory sensitivity? To start, a person can be accommodated by finding and wearing clothing of a specific brand, fit, or material that is acceptable. If you aren’t the one who is sensitive it is important that you allow people who are to dress in a comfortable fashion without concern about “age appropriateness” or formality. Also, it is generally a good idea not to touch people without their consent (even to “get their attention” or for conversational taps) and this especially goes if you know the other person is touch sensitive. If you are sensitive to being touched and other people touching you is becoming a problem, it may be wise to be assertive and preface interactions with a script like “hey, it makes me uncomfortable when people touch me, so if you could try your best to not do that I would greatly appreciate it.” Sensitivity to touch and texture may play a large role in food sensitivities (which I wrote an entire post on, and you can read by clicking here). Finally, wide-sized shoes and seamless socks, both of which you can buy, can help reduce potential sensory triggers when it comes to light touch.
People who are sensory seeking of light touch might enjoy feeling specific textures or rubbing things against their skin. If you or someone you know needs additional sensory input via light touch, it may be worth it to carry around a small object or stim toy that can provide that sort of input when one needs it (stimtastic.co sells a wide variety of such items). You may also want to improvise ways of providing such input, such as by filling a tub with dry uncooked beans or plastic buttons or something of the like, whatever may fit the particular sensory profile in question.
It is generally easier to avoid overstimulation to deep touch than to light touch for one who is over-sensitive to it, but there are some areas where it could be problematic as well. The one that immediately stands out are those infernal blood pressure cuffs that are used during visits to the doctor’s office. Here the only thing I can think of to recommend would be to speak with your doctor about your (or you dependent’s, if applicable) about this and come up with a solution that can help ease some of the pain. People who are specifically over-sensitive to deep touch may also not like to be patted, cuddled with, or generally touched, so as before its important to respect people’s personal space and boundaries.
However, in my experience in dealing with lots of different autistic people both online and in-person it seems to be far more common to be sensory seeking of deep touch. Weighted blankets are fantastic for this, and in addition also have calming and grounding benefits for people (and this applies to all people, not just autistic people, hence why weighted blankets are becoming popular for everybody.
The sense of heat and cold on the skin can also be reduced to its own separate sense within touch as its own broad category. Note that this is different than feeling generally internally hot or cold (which falls more under the category of interoception or internal sensory perception) but rather refers to the feeling of temperature as “an ice cube feels cold but a bowl of soup feels hot.”
Sensory avoidance and seeking in this area is something that is rarely discussed and as such there’s not much from other sources I could get for this post. Oversensitivity to tactile temperature may very well play a role in specific sensory aversions to specific specific stimuli, such as, for example, not wanting to ever eat anything cold.
Sensory seeking of thermal stimuli, which I imagine exists somewhere in somebody but does’t seem to be super common from a cursory examination and isn’t something I experience myself, is also something that is valid and demands acceptance, and if anyone reading this is sensory seeking or avoidant of temperature on their skin please let me know more in depth the ways that this affects you!
(Edit): Thanks to commenter Jordan who is sensory seeking and hyposensitive to temperature for the following information. People who are hyposensitive to temperature may not recognize as easily when things are hot or cold, for example cold and hot water both feel less extreme. I suppose this is something one must be cognizant of as people who are hyposensitive in this area may be more likely to accidentally hurt themselves because of too high or low temperatures. Sensory seeking in this area may therefore involve activities such as feeling hot or cold objects such as ice cubes or hot rocks, or craving things such as hot baths and showers. Luckily, ice cubes and hot baths, if available, make for good use to increase thermal input if desired.
Sense of Pain
Lastly, there is the sense of pain, which is, like the others listed here, its own independent sense, and like all other senses autistic people and others who process sensory input differently can be both over and under sensitive to pain. Many autistic people report being almost indifferent to much pain, even to the point of them not recognizing that they had a serious injury. This could potentially become dangerous, and so if you are someone you know is under-sensitive to pain it’s probably a good idea to be extra cautious when determining the severity of an apparent injury. Similar considerations should also probably. be taken with people who are particularly sensitive to pain.
And thus, the “sense of touch” has been broken down into its component parts. As always, I hope some insights here have given you a better idea of how you or someone you know operates and perceives the world.