Sensation

Content note: alcohol use.

Featured Image: Latinx Mother with baby by David Castillo Dominici

I’ve been rolling an idea around in my head for a while, ever since I had a couple of drinks a few weeks ago and noted how different my body felt. It has been theorised elsewhere that autism is primarily a sensory condition. The study at that link seems to have it a bit backwards, though, approaching the correlation with a view that social impairment causes autistic people not to respond to social touch in the same way as non-autistic people. Now, there’s some evidence that we experience sensory input more intensely than non-autistic folks, but nobody seems to be coming at this from the right angle.

This article in Medical Daily discusses the role of “pleasant touch” in the social, emotional and physiological development of babies. It’s an important part of building the structures within the brain that will form the basis for further development later in life. So what happens when “pleasant touch” isn’t pleasant? We autistic folks have a variety of sensory difficulties, but we seem to occupy the two extremes of the sensory spectrum: those who don’t notice touch much, and those who are hypersensitive to touch. Speaking as a hypersensitive type, I find that light touches are annoyingly tickly, eliciting the kind of emotional and physical response you might expect to having a fly buzzing round and occasionally landing on you. It’s reasonable, then, that as infants neither hyper- nor hypo-sensitive autistic people got the full benefits of this social touch from our parents. The foundations for social and emotional development were not laid in the same was as they would be for people without sensory differences, nor can they be “corrected”, if they rely entirely on our processing of sensory events.

Back to that couple of drinks. I was curled up with a good friend, who was stroking my arm. Normally I can’t stand this, and quickly get irritated and swat the annoying hands away. I noticed that I’d been surprisingly patient with the touches and started paying attention to how they felt. Was he doing something different? No, it was the same kind of touch, the difference was that it was numbed slightly. For once I could feel beyond the immediate and overwhelming sensation to the touch itself. I felt the bonding aspects of it, I enjoyed it.

This also feeds in to one of the ideas I have been throwing about on Twitter recently. Ask a lot of autistic folks to say how they feel, and they might struggle. It’s called alexithymia, the inability to articulate your feelings. What I’ve also noticed in myself and a great many of my autistic friends is that we tend to experience a great deal of crossover between physical sensations and emotions. Heat and anger, cold and sadness, physical irritation with emotional irritability. What I suspect is that what non-autistic people see as a lack of emotional understanding is actually a form of synaesthesia which occurs between emotions and sensations. Where some people might experience this crossover between numbers, words, colours, smells, or flavours, we experience it between feelings. This mixing of the senses can go both ways, for example we may feel cold when we are sad, but also sad when we are cold.

This really feels like one of those revelatory “I couldn’t see the wood for the trees” kind of moments. One more point in understanding why we experience the world the way we do, and perhaps some hope of tools to help us. Treatments for our sensory difficulties could increase our enjoyment of traditional social interactions, perhaps even make them easier. If we experienced enjoyable bonding the same way non-autistic people do, how much easier might social occasions be? Conversely, if we understood the function of social touch in non-autistics and how it can be replicated for autistic people without requiring touch, we could make social space more accessible. If we understood and could manage our emotion-sensation synaesthesia, might we have an easier time with emotional regulation?

I would very much like to see wider studies of synaesthesia-like experiences in autistic people, and detailed study of how hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity to touch affect development. Can we provide recognition and help sooner? Can we change how we use touch to make social touch a more pleasant experience for autistic babies, and will that change their developmental path? I hope that this is one tiny aspect of the autistic experience in which we can provide some support and comfort, and maybe better social outcomes for our next generation.

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