Autistic Sensory Overload – How to Manage Issues with Touch and Feel

This is one area of my high functioning autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) that affects me every single day and in a wide range of ways. I am very hypersensitive to touch on every part of my body and because of this I have very sensitive skin.

Light touch is painful and even more so when it is unexpected. It can be from another person touching me such as shaking my hand or patting me on the back, from clothes touching me or brushing against my skin or even light rain touching my face. This can also cause social issues as there have been many occasions such as at work and job interviews where I will hesitate when someone wants to shake my hand because I do not like another person touching me in anyway. This slight hesitation is always noticed and it means that I nearly always make the wrong impression before I even talk to the other person. Touch is such an issue for me that I do not let anyone touch me unless it is my wife, two sons or work related (as I am in a caring job and support disabled young adults so it is part of my role). I do not touch any other family member in any way, not even my mum and dad. In fact I have not touched my mum and dad in over 20 years (luckily they know me and are used to it). Apart from one occasions where I may have hugged my mum when my step father died but I cannot remember doing so. I am exceptionally ticklish as well.

I have many issues that I face with my sensitive skin. I can only wear clothes that are made out of certain materials such as cotton and a high cotton polyester mix. I cannot wear acrylic, wool or linen as they feel incredibly uncomfortable and I itch really bad. I cannot wear anything that goes up to my neck either like a normal t-shirt, crew neck jumper or have the top button of my shirt done up as it feels like I am chocking, even if the material is just resting on my skin and I have got plenty of room to breathe. My clothes cannot be washed with biological wash powder and there are many sensitive wash powders that still cause my skin to burn and itch. It is the same with any bedding I use or any material that touches my skin. This causes problems when sleeping outside of my home such as at my in-laws and in hotels as they use biological wash powders. My wife did not believe I had sensitive skin at one point (she could not understand as she did not have it herself) but on the occasions when she used the wrong wash powder or I slept at her family’s house, and they used the wrong wash powder, I burned up and get a red rash all over my body so the affect could be visibly seen. I always take my own bedding where I know I will have difficulties even though I look a bit odd carrying it around. Luckily I do not have to do this with most hotels as, I believe, their industrial type washing machines are good enough to completely remove all of the wash powder they use so it does not react to my skin.

Like my difficulties with clothes and wash powders I need to use certain products to wash my skin. This includes sensitive shampoo, shower gel, face wash, sun lotion and shaving cream (when I used to shave with a razor). I do not use aftershave as it burns me too much. I have tried to use many types of shower gels and soaps, where their main selling line is that they are sensitive, but they still cause me to burn and itch so I have to choose what I use very carefully. As I have got high functioning autism (Asperger’s) once I have found a product that is suitable I will use it for many many years without changing it or wanting to change it.

It causes issues such as at work, visiting shops and public transport as I do not like brushing past a person or any accidental touches of hands etc so I give people a lot of room when I walk by them and will always go into a space where it is not crowded which can be very noticeable at times. I hate visiting the dentist (like most people whether they are autistic or not) and I cannot go to the hairdressers any more. As the hairdressers caused me too much stress and anxiety no matter what solutions I tried. I hated the noise of the clippers buzzing in my ears and vibrating on my head, the hair dresser touching my head (the touch issues were by far the worst part of it all), the need to have a conversation and so on. I put many measures in place for this simple thing but now I cut my own hair. I went to about 20 different hairdressers until I found one that I liked which was a male barber in his late 50s. For some reason I hated it when females cut my hair, must be a lighter touch thing as males tend to be a bit firmer, as I tend to get on with females much more than males in every other aspect of my life and always have even in my youngest memories of childhood. I had to have my haircut every 6 weeks as my hair would get uncontrollably long otherwise but over the years I got to know him and could have some good conversations with him. Even though I got to know him and saw him as a friend I was still anxious leading up to having a haircut and was still nervous when I got there. In addition I still felt incredibly relieved when I had finished having my haircut as I knew it was done for another six weeks. In the end he retired and although I found another good barber I decided that the whole thing was just too stressful to carry on with in the end. I tried things in the past such as growing my hair long, but this looked really bad on me so now I just have a short hairstyle that I can easily cut myself.

With all these issues it is a wonder how I get out in the world 😉 but with some adjustments, that are quite small, I get by mostly okay.

  • Buying clothes that are mostly cotton (which is okay for summer but not very warm for winter so I do have to wear some poly cotton that is a better base layer for keeping warm in winter).
  • Finding the right toiletries and wash powders that do not react with my skin (mostly sensitive and wool/silk/delicate wash is really good for washing most of my clothes without causing me a reaction).
  • Wearing the right clothing for rain such as a really good breathable waterproof jacket so I can put the hood up to stop the rain touching my hair and face. I used to use an umbrella as well as this was really good but find the jacket better these days.
  • Cutting my own hair at the expense of it not quite being as good as a hairdressers but I have become very good at it with practise and do not make many mistakes (which I did when I first started to do it). Youtube videos helped me no end in learning how to do it properly and well.
  • Avoiding public transport, especially at busy times. Luckily I own a car and do not drink alcohol so I very rarely need to use it.
  • Do not touch other people that I do not want to touch. Which is something that has just happened naturally since a child where the price is social awkwardness and less social acceptance but it is something I have to accept and perhaps work on somehow.
  • When I have to touch others such as shaking a hand it helps a great deal when I expect it and shake the hand firmly so that I do not get that light touch.
  • I have also found that if I do burn or get a reaction to something that aftersun with Aloe Vera is a miracle cure and certainly helps with reducing the itching and burning. It is the aloe vera that is the most important part though as this is a natural product that is used in healing burns and it is very effective for me.


2 thoughts on “Autistic Sensory Overload – How to Manage Issues with Touch and Feel

  • Avatar
    November 2, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    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.

    • Shaun - Site Admin
      November 2, 2019 at 3:53 pm

      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.


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