Autism: How Touch Sensitivity and Sensitive Skin Affects Us and Ways to Help

Realising Autism Caused My Touch Sensitivity

I had a late diagnosis of autism/Aspergers.  I didn’t even suspect I was autistic until my early thirties.  That’s actually the first time I’d even heard of the term Aspergers (as we’re taught so little about it in society).  So I went through most of my life knowing I was different, without any explanation why.

I’ve always been sensitive when someone touches me, and have had sensitive skin.  It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with autism/Aspergers, that I found out the true cause of it.

How Touch Issues Affect People with Autism

Touch sensitivity affects us in many ways.  Most of them we know, as it causes so much discomfort or pain. Others may not be so obvious.

Light Touch

Light touch is painful, and even more so when it’s unexpected.  With the enigma of autism/Aspergers, it can be much more uncomfortable to be lightly touched, than it is to experience a deeper touch or even an injury caused by a bump or bang.

Examples of light or unexpected touch include:

  • Clothing and tags, especially rough materials like acrylic
  • Light rain
  • Showers
  • Brushing our teeth
  • Our partners lightly touching our arms
  • Intense sensitivity to tickling
  • Someone gently patting us on the back
  • Phone vibrating in our pockets
  • The texture and feel of food in our mouths
  • Someone else brushing our hair

Social Issues

People sense when we don’t want to be touched, and it can cause a wariness towards us.  They subconsciously read our facial expressions and body language, and make decisions about us based on this information.  Even the slightest hesitation or grimace (if we’re touched unexpectedly) can make the other person feel like we detest them.

This can cause problems in the work place or interviews.  As people constantly, and unexpectedly, reach out their hand for it to be shook.  Alternatively they will place a hand on our shoulder, or backs, as a way of connecting with us.

Family Issues

Autism/Aspergers causes so much sensitivity to touch, we only let a select few people get within touching distance of us.  Usually only our partners and children.  So even when our parents are going through times of discomfort, we may refrain from hugging them.

If an overfriendly aunty tries to kiss us on the cheek, it becomes a very awkward moment.  Between letting them, as it’s harmless, or pulling away because of the deep discomfort it can cause.

Our partners and children know us, and realise that anything like a light stroke on the arm is unbearable.  But anything firm, like a hug, is fine.

Clothing

It’s almost impossible for someone who isn’t autistic/Aspie to understand how clothing can be so irritating, itchy and in some cases agonising to wear.  This is why so many autistic/Aspie adults only wear their favourite top.  Or why so many autistic children hate getting changed.

We can only wear clothing made of specific materials such as cotton, polyester or a mixture of the two.  Certain clothing material has to be completely avoided such as acrylic, wool or linen.

In addition many autistic/Aspie don’t like to wear clothing that feels too restrictive around the neck.  Such as a shirt and tie or a crew neck t-shirt.

Wash Powder

Our skins are so sensitive, that many sensitive wash powders are not gentle enough.  So we have to find out, by trial and error, which brand of non-biological wash powder (or liquid) is suitable for our sensitive skins.

As our autistic/Aspie skin is so sensitive, we will itch, have a rash and be in pain if we wear any clothing that’s been washed in the wrong type of detergent.  This causes problems, in many aspects, of our lives.  Simply stopping in a hotel can bring us out in a rash, due to the bedding.  Having to wash new clothing before we can wear it.  Often having to take our own bedding, if stopping over at a relatives.  Which to them seems very odd, but is essential for us.

Toiletries

Like our difficulties with clothes and detergents, we need to use very sensitive products to wash our skin. This includes sensitive shampoo, soaps, face wash, sun lotion and shaving cream.

We cannot tolerate many aftershaves and perfumes, as the smell is overpowering.  But if we can tolerate the smell, then we have to be cautious as many burn our skin (much worse than it does for non-autistics).

Due to our autism/Aspergers and not liking change, once we find a suitable product we may use it for many years.

Issues Touch Sensitivity Causes in Everyday Life

Due to our touch sensitivity, from being autistic/Aspie, we struggle with many aspects of everyday life.

On public transport we dread it when someone sits next to us.  As we don’t like being touched or brushed by strangers, so need our personal space.  In shops we don’t like brushing past a person, or any accidental touches of hands.  So give people a lot of room when we walk by them.  We often go into a space where it’s not crowded, which can be very noticeable at times.

Trips to the dentist can be unbearable for many reasons such as light sensitivity and the social interaction.  But touch sensitivity is another reason why many autistics/Aspies hate visiting the dentist.

Of all the public places, the worst for most autistics/Aspies is the hairdressers/barbers.  So much, many of us cut our own hair or let it grow long.  It is an onslaught to our senses.  Such as the buzzing of the clippers and the light touches on our heads and shoulders.  Not to mention having to deal with the small talk, that comes so difficult for us autistics/Aspies.

Things That Help With Autistic/Aspie Touch Issues

Some adjustments to help with touch issues include:

  • Buying clothes that are mostly cotton, nylon or polyester.
  • Finding the right toiletries and wash powders that do not react with our skin (most sensitive and delicate detergents are really good for washing most of our clothes, without causing a reaction).
  • Wearing the right clothing for rain. Such as a really good breathable waterproof jacket.  Where we can put the hood up to stop the rain touching our hair and face.
  • Wearing a cap or using an umbrella when it is raining.
  • Cutting our own hair or having a long hair.
  • Using a push bike, motorbike, or car instead of public transport.
  • Shaking hands with people firmly to avoid the light touch feeling.
  • If we burn, or get a reaction to detergents or chemicals in soaps, using after sun with Aloe Vera. Or other ointments to soothe the pain.
  • Having baths instead of showers.

2 thoughts on “Autism: How Touch Sensitivity and Sensitive Skin Affects Us and Ways to Help

  • Avatar
    November 2, 2019 at 1:42 pm
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    I hear you; I have this problem, too, along with sensitivity to sound, which you discussed in another article. I’ll leave a reply about that on that article. But in terms of touch, I tend to withdraw anytime someone gets too close to me. I cut tags out of any and every item of clothes I have; they tickle and itch. i also can’t wear high necklines as they feel like i’m being choked. I haven’t figured out why yet, but part of it may be the tactile sensitivity. My clothes (well, at least my tops) also have to be loose, not only because I like them this way, but because I tend to go up and down in weight due to hypothyroidism. It can be as much as 15 lbs if my thyroid hormone levels are really low; that’s like saying a whole dress size. I won’t buy bigger clothes, though. Public buses get very crowded, and they expect me to let someone sit next to me, which I cannot handle, so I stopped using them. See if your area has a paratransit agency, usually termed a transit district, for people with disabilities. This could be an alternative to taking the state buses. You will have to pay twice the state bus fare, but it’s a much more comfortable ride, so worth the extra cost. I don’t know what that’s like in the UK, but for me in the states, it’s been very helpful.

    Reply
    • Shaun - Site Admin
      November 2, 2019 at 3:53 pm
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      Thanks for your excellent and insightful comment. It means a great deal to me that you’ve taken the time to write about how touch can cause us so many difficulties. I avoid public transport as much as possible, but tried using a tram the other day to get into the city and I managed but it was tough. Someone sat next to me and brushed his upper arm on mine, which was not a nice experience. On the way back another passenger sat next to me and our knees were touching. It is awful how our personal space is invaded at times like these.

      Reply

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