Physical Touch for Kids with Autism: A Basic Human Need
How to Tell if Physical Touch is Your Child’s Love Language
- Communication: Physical touch can be a powerful form of nonverbal communication, helping children with autism or ADHD understand and express their emotions. For example, a hug can provide comfort and reassurance, while a gentle touch on the shoulder can signal support.
- Sensory regulation: Children under the spectrum often have sensory sensitivities, and physical touch can help regulate their sensory system and provide comfort. For example, deep pressure touch, such as from a weighted toy, can have a calming effect for some children.
- Bonding: Physical touch can help children form strong emotional bonds with their caregivers. For example, cuddling during reading or a hug after a difficult day can strengthen the connection between a child and their parent or therapist.
- Social skills: Physical touch can also help children develop social skills, such as understanding personal space and social cues. For example, learning to high-five or shake hands can help a child understand and participate in social interactions.
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 pillow 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.
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: 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.