A few years ago, when everyone else’s two and three-year old’s were seeking out cuddles and tickles, my son was often going into meltdowns at the slightest touch. Now, at the age of five, he requires and seeks out intensive physical contact each day, such as us strongly squashing him with pillows, or hugs that literally take his breath away with their force.
This might look like an extreme change in my son’s sensitivities, but it’s not. He still typically finds light touches or gentle cuddles quite unsettling, and if he’s already in an anxious mood, they can tip into meltdown territory. His issues relate to the pressure of the touch, not touch itself.
This is quite a common issue for autistic people. Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine is a well-known example of how it can be addressed. She provides a good explanation of the sensory issues involved, for those of you interested in the finer details of the cerebellar abnormalities. As a family, we were introduced to the explanation of the issue – and techniques to address it – by our son’s occupational therapist.
Well-meaning family and friends see us give our son these energetic hugs and squeezes and seem to take them as evidence of him now liking being touched, whereas once they had to totally avoid it. I often see him squirm away from them when they gently touch his shoulder, or give him a swift hug, or attempt a light tickle session. He does his best to cope with the unpleasant sensations, it’s something he’s just going to have to get used to anyway; we can’t always step in right before a touch-interaction and warn people for him that whatever they’re about to do, it better be done firmly.
I’ve seen his attempts to cope with this issue at kindergarten. Early on he’d just completely avoid any contact with the other children. Typically he would back up to get away from them, making his body as compact as possible. I watched one incident when a boisterous boy kept tripping his way over my son, even when my son had backed himself as far as he could into a corner. At one stage the boy was just standing with his back to my son, his bottom in my son’s face, oblivious as children that age frequently are. I kept trying to tell the boy to move, get out-of-the-way; then sure enough, my son leant forward and bit the boy’s shorts (not his skin thankfully). To anyone else this would have looked like aggressive un-provoked behaviour by my son. To me it was a predictable outcome of an autistic child under stress.
My son’s coping strategies have evolved since then. Now if the other children are climbing all over him or getting in his face, he just goes very quiet and still and waits for them to stop it. Sometimes he even manages to smile and quietly enjoy the social interaction; he’s come a long way.
I don’t know whether he will ever overcome this sensitivity to light touch, and the need for deep pressure, but it seems highly unlikely. He is more likely to learn to hide and control his reactions, and to find ways to subtly provide himself with deep pressure when it’s most needed (he needs the pressure most when he is anxious, but it is also a good method to stop him getting too anxious to begin with). Our methods of squashing him with pillows can’t be a long-term solution, and definitely not a public one!
The intense breath-taking hug however, is something I will always volunteer to give him when and wherever he wants it. And sometimes even when he doesn’t want it, because that’s what mothers do.