The whole article speaks to me about my experiences raising my autistic son, but this section especially:
AUTISTIC TACTILE PROBLEMS
I pulled away when people tried to hug me, because being touched sent an overwhelming tidal wave of stimulation through my body. I wanted to feel the comforting feeling of being held, but then when somebody held me, the effect on my nervous system was overwhelming.
Small itches and scratches that most people ignored were torture. A scratchy petticoat was like sandpaper rubbing my skin raw. Hair washing was also awful. When mother scrubbed my hair, my scalp hurt. I also had problems with adapting to new types of clothes. It took several days for me to stop feeling a new type of clothing on my body; whereas a normal person adapts to the change from pants to a dress in five minutes. Many people with autism prefer soft cotton against the skin. I also liked long pants, because I disliked the feeling of my legs touching each other.
Many autistic children will seek deep pressure. Many parents have told me that their children get under the sofa cushions or mattress. I craved deep pressure stimulation, but I pulled away and stiffened when my overweight aunt hugged me. In my two books (Grandin and Scariano 1986 and Grandin 1995), I describe a squeeze machine. I constructed to satisfy my craving for the feeling of being held. The machine was designed so that I could control the amount and duration of the pressure. It was lined with foam rubber and applied pressure over a large area of my body.
Gradually I was able to tolerate the machine holding me. The oversensitivity of my nervous system was slowly reduced. A stimulus that was once overwhelming and aversive had now become pleasurable. Using the machine enabled me to tolerate another person touching me. A partial explanation for the lack of empathy in autism may be due to an oversensitive nervous system that prevents an autistic child from receiving the comforting tactile stimulation that comes from being hugged. I learned how to pet our cat more gently after I had used the squeeze machine. I had to comfort myself before I could give comfort to the cat. It is important to desensitize an autistic child so that he/she can tolerate comforting touch. I have found that if I use my squeeze machine on a regular basis that I have nicer images in my dreams. Experiencing the comforting feeling of being held makes nasty or mean thoughts go away.
My son was a very happy, huggy baby and toddler. Then at about age 2, the typical time for autistic differences to become obvious, he started showing signs of sensory hypersensitivity to noise, light and textures as his speech acquisition slowed. By the time he was 4 he no longer wanted to be hugged much, and definitely didn’t want to be kissed, but I used to insist on hugs several times daily anyway, knowing that it was the only way to desensitise him at all. (And he still did snuggle into them happily at times, if he was upset about something else.)
By age 6 he insisted on no hugs. At all. It broke our hearts.
But to physically dominate him into forced hugs would have felt like we were assaulting him, so we acquiesced. I continued to work on desensitisation by actually massaging him, getting him to lie down and I would rub his back, or one limb, quite firmly. He could cope with that, even enjoyed it, because it wasn’t his whole body being enveloped by a hug.
At age 10, a time when he was especially anxious and sad about not having friends, we had a talk which I can’t remember in detail, but I just told him what hugs meant to neurotypical people (a term he was just starting to understand with respect to autistic brains processing stimuli differently). I told him how much his daddy and mummy and sister missed getting hugs from him, because it was a sign of affection that actually stimulated good chemicals in the brain, and that made people feel good about getting hugs and also feel good about the people who give them hugs. I told him if he could get back into the habit of hugging, even just a little one-arm hug, then he would get those good chemicals inside his brain too, and it would make him feel happier.
He decided to give it a go. I cried buckets that night when he gave his Dad a good-night hug for the first time in 4 years.
A few days after he made a point of having goodnight and goodbye hugs, he told me I was right: they did make him feel better, thanks for that, but I still don’t want any kisses mum. I promised to do my best, but could he try not to get too upset if every now and then during a hug I forgot and gave him a little smooch because I loved him so much? He decided the occasional smooch on his hair would be OK, because he didn’t really feel it there. I gratefully took that concession and haven’t abused the privilege.
He’s thirteen now. We get and give hugs at every parting and most greetings. They’re still slightly stand-offish hugs, his body angled away from full chest-to-chest contact, but they are real and frequent affectionate hugs.
And since starting high school, he’s got friends. He’s so much happier now than he was during the period he was refusing hugs. It was so worth persisting with tactile desensitisation, and I’m so glad my physio training meant that I knew how important it was.