Autism and Touch

One of the hardest challenges for families facing autism is the problem of touch. Often, autistic children resist hugging and other types of physical contact. A new study as sighted by Time’s Healthland Blog offers insight into why some people shrug off physical touches and how families affected by autism can learn to share hugs without overwhelming their autistic child’s senses.

Yale neuroscientists recruited 19 young adults and imaged their brain activity as a researcher lightly brushed them on the forearm with a soft watercolor paintbrush. In some cases, the brushing was quick, and in others slow. Studies show that most people like slow brushing and perceive it as affectionate, while the faster version is felt more tickle-like.

None of the participants in the current study had autism, but the researchers evaluated them for autistic traits — things like a preference for sameness, order and systems, rather than social interaction. They found that participants with the highest levels of autistic traits had a lower response in key social brain regions — the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) — to the slow brushing.

A Similar study as reported by Medical News Today reports on Neuroscientists  who show how the brain responds to caress. The brain makes the connection between touch and emotion. “We demonstrated for the first time that the primary somatosensory cortex – the brain region encoding basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is – also is sensitive to the social meaning of a touch,” explains Michael Spezio, a visiting associate at Caltech who is also an assistant professor of psychology at ScrippsCollege in Claremont, California. “It was generally thought that there are separate brain pathways for how we process the physical aspects of touch on the skin and for how we interpret that touch emotionally – that is, whether we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, desired, or repulsive. Our study shows that, to the contrary, emotion is involved at the primary stages of social touch.”

According to Martha Kaiser, senior author of the study and associate director of the Child Neuroscience Laboratory at the YaleChild Study Center, the STS is a critical hub of the social brain. “This region is important for perceiving the people around us, for visual social stimuli and for perceiving social versus nonsocial sounds,” she says. The current findings suggest that the region is also involved in processing social touch and that its response is linked to the individual’s social ability, she says.

The OFC, in contrast, helps the brain evaluate experiences — whether something is likely to be good or bad and if it involves pleasure or pain. “The brains of people high in autistic traits aren’t coding touch as socially relevant, that’s one interpretation,” says Kaiser of her findings. “The OFC is very important for coding reward so maybe they’re feeling the touch but in these individuals, their brains don’t code that type of touch as being as rewarding as in individuals with fewer autistic traits.”

If that’s the case, finding ways to make social experience — including touch — more rewarding might be one way to help autistic people connect better with others.