How to Develop a Sense of Safety Through Touch with Autism
Working with touch therapy to develop a sense of boundaries and personal space can often help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) open-up and enjoy more of what life can offer.
Some people with autism experience issues with the sense of physical boundaries and personal space. Often, they feel their skin and body differently due to sensory variances. They are frequently reluctant to be touched and approached and might limit their participation in activities to a selected few. Experiencing human touch is now widely-known as a necessity to the healthy development of children as well as boosting the physical and mental health of adults. If there is a way to allow people with autism to participate in touch therapy, they can benefit significantly.
When there is no clear sense of boundaries, a person becomes cautious. Without a sense of security or control, people shut down communication and turn into themselves. Through exploring limits positively and respectfully a sense of security is regained, and the same people can learn to “open up” and experience new activities.
How can exploring boundaries be done through touch? I would like to give an example through the story of one of my patients: Lucy* is a woman with complex needs. She is non-verbal and spends entire days seated on a sofa at the corner of a room. The regular staff who works with her in a day center tried getting her involved in various activities, but with little success. When I first started giving Lucy Shiatsu treatments (traditional Japanese touch therapy), she was reluctant to be touched on any part of her body and was pushing my hand away very quickly and frowning angrily. It seemed as if Shiatsu was one more activity Lucy would skip.
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I changed my approach to the treatment and started exploring Lucy’s boundaries together with her, through touch. I would reach to her with one hand, and she would allow me to touch her leg or arm for a short while before pushing my hand away. As she drove my hand away, I would keep it gently leaned against hers, so there was still physical contact.
Lucy’s reaction to that was holding her hand mid-way between her and me and preserving the physical contact between us two. It seemed to me that Lucy did not feel the need to push my hand away from here, or to avoid the touch altogether, only to clarify where does the boundary stand for her. We repeated this routine many times each session, each time enabling Lucy to make her decision as to what the right distance is. Gradually, she began allowing me to apply therapeutic touch that lasts for extended periods of time and in parts of her body which she did not let before (upper back, shoulders, neck).
Now, Lucy also experiences different qualities of touch such as deep pressure and rocking movements, which she strictly refused before (she used to agree only to gentle brushing movements). Her allowing that is especially important from a therapeutic point of view, as in Shiatsu it is necessary to apply touch with changing qualities and in various body parts. Use of appropriate technique makes the most of the treatment and helps to promote the clients’ health and relieve various issues (such as pains, constipation, anxiety, and more).
Challenging a person’s boundaries respectfully and gently develops their sense of safety. Once people feel they can control a situation, push back when necessary while allowing contact when it is comfortable, they can feel secure enough to try and explore new things. This feeling of security is key to emotional health and for a more prosperous life, filled with experiences.
This article was featured in Issue 77 – Achieving Better Health with ASD