How to use touch to express love to a touch-defensive child
Written By: Jennifer Ammacher, M.A.
Physical touch is a basic human need for everyone, including children with autism—even children who have sensory processing disorders and may be defensive against touch. Touch is a natural instinct that provides emotional security. It’s also the easiest of the Five Love Languages* to use unconditionally, which means that using physical touch telegraphs strongly: “I love you!” On the other hand, failing to touch your child shouts just as strongly: “I don’t love you!” Clearly, this can put parents into a no-win situation if their child avoids touch altogether or is reluctant to allow touch. Even with a touch-defensive child, though, there are ways to communicate love through physical touch.
How to Tell if Physical Touch is Your Child’s Love Language
Is it even possible for a child who is touch-resistant to have physical touch as a primary Love Language? Absolutely! We are talking about two entirely different things here. Being resistant to touch is typically a purely physical response due to a sensory integration or sensory modulation issue. Physical touch as a love language, however, fills an emotional role for your child that is separate from the physical response. Certain kinds of touch may actually be distracting, upsetting, or even painful to your child, but that doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t need touch.
Here are a few clues that physical touch may be your child’s Love Language:
Your child asks for or seeks out hugs or likes to cuddle.
Often, children who shy away or push you away when you try to hug them will find ways to hug you instead. When you are hugging your spouse, does your child try to get in the middle of the hug? Does your child like to cuddle with a blanket or a favorite stuffed animal? These are signs that your child expresses love through touch.
Your child likes physical games, roughhousing, or contact sports.
With autism, it’s all about the kind of touch that the child is seeking. Some children who don’t like hugs or cuddling really love roughhousing. Children who love contact sports or who like to play rough, wrestle, or crash into things are often looking for a less emotional way to add more touch into their daily routines.
Your child likes holding your hand.
This is a very simple way to express love, or the need for additional security, and doesn’t require as much contact as an embrace.
Your child likes backrubs, back scratches, or hair brushing.
A lot of kids hate being touched on the back or having their hair brushed. Children who seek out this kind of interaction are very likely to have physical touch as their primary Love Language.
Activities That Provide Physical Touch Without Overwhelming Your Child
Almost all children with autism have some resistance to touch or are, at the very least, easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation. In addition to using sensory integration therapy and other occupational therapies to help your child build up a tolerance for being touched, there are ways that you can include touch in your child’s daily routine without causing a meltdown or flooding the senses. We tend to think of physical touch as highly-emotionally charged, full-body embraces, but that doesn’t have to be the case. As with all new experiences that you are adding to your child’s routine, start small, experiment to find out what works best for your child, and have patience.
Here are a few creative ideas to help you add touch into your child’s daily routine:
- Sit close together. The warmth of your presence nearby is often enough to give easily stimulated children the physical touch they crave.
- Pat back/shoulders. A gentle squeeze or massage is affectionate without being overwhelming to your child.
- Play Twister. Make physical interaction fun! There are all kinds of games that provide much needed physical touch without requiring too much of an emotional investment from your child.
- Sing songs with interactive hand motions or dance. It may sound strange, but you don’t always have to actually be touching for an activity count as physical touch. Moving in unison, such as doing silly dances or walks together or singing songs with group hand motions, stimulates the same feel-good endorphins as physical touch.
- Help the child with hand over hand assistance. Does your child need help buttoning a coat, putting on shoes, or buckling up in the car? These are wonderful, practical ways to include physical touch in your day.
- Side hugs. These are great for kids who need physical touch but don’t like eye contact or other face-to-face interactions.
- High-fives. Sometimes a simple high-five, fist-bump, or secret handshake is enough to let children know they are loved. Plus, these actions are fun, inclusive, and low stakes. I also recommend “air high-fives” or “air clapping” for children who are particularly sensitive to touch.
- Apply lotion. Any kind of grooming can be an ideal opportunity for physical touch. Lotion or sunscreen is especially good for children who react negatively to rough textures or skin-on-skin contact.
*The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman is an internationally best-selling book that topped the New York Times list for 8 years running and is now celebrating over 25 years in print. Many of the ideas in this blog are not original to me; however, I am summarizing, adding my unique take based on my experiences as a Special Education teacher, and explaining ways that parents can adapt Chapman’s ideas to better suit special needs children.
Special Education Teacher
Jennifer graduated from East Stroudsburg University with her MEd in Special Education. Jennifer served as a teacher at SpringBrook and has extensive course work on ABA. Serving as a speaker at many national autism conferences, Jennifer speaks to teachers and parents on how to ensure that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders succeed in the classroom. She also speaks at conferences on Antecedent Behavior Intervention, Discrete Trial Training, and Differential Reinforcement & Extinction. Earlier in her career she was nominated for induction into the Da Vinci Science Center’s Hall of Fame.