A Note to Parents

From Dr. Louisa Silva

Why Do We Focus On Touch and Why is Touch Important?

The organ of touch, the symbol, is the hand. It isn’t the hand! It’s the entire skin, and the skin covers the body. Skin is the largest organ of the body, and has some 5 million sensory cells that give feeling, depth and substance to the world around us. There is a direct connection between the skin and the brain. It is a way that the brain and the body get to know each other. When a baby isn’t touched, those connections between the skin and the brain are dormant. But when you touch your child it makes a connection in the brain, “Oh, this is my hand!”, and that connection is what builds the ability to use the hand.

Parent-child touch is the first touch that brings those feelings of deep, calm connection. It feels so good, we long for it and keep coming back for more. That’s why children seek connection. Meanwhile, your touch is more important to your child than anybody else. Your child responds to your touch faster. She calms quicker. He is more reassured by your touch than anybody else.

We don’t know why there is social delay in autism. We do know that if there is any barrier to touch in the first 3 years of life, there is going to be social delay, because touch is where social development begins. In autism, research shows that children have problems with touch, there is a barrier to touch. Children refuse touch on different parts of their body. They struggle with it, and parents try to cope with that. It’s not the parent’s fault that the child refuses touch, though the parents often think that. It is actually a problem with the child’s sense of touch.

What should feel good to the skin doesn’t feel so good. A kiss on the face is a little bit uncomfortable and causes a rejection response! Children might withdraw from touch, or they might not notice it. Some areas of the body might feel okay, but other areas hurt with even light touch, and yet other areas are numb when injured. Sensory nerves in the skin are affected, and there is a problem with the sense of touch.

It’s a very confusing picture of the body for the child’s brain, and this patchwork of different feelings makes it hard for the child to develop a whole sense of self. As a result, there is no way that parent touch can work in the same way as it does in typically developing children. In autism, touch doesn’t calm children down, and children don’t seek it out as much for comfort and reassurance.

So if there’s something you can do on a daily basis to calm them, to focus them, to open them up to learning, then you want to do that. There is something that parents can do for the problems with touch, and that’s Qigong Sensory Treatment (QST) massage!

Qigong massage is an organized form of touch from Chinese medicine. The parent gives it every day. It’s like a daily medicine. It takes the stress out of the child so that they can deal with what comes to them during the day, and at the same time, it’s a way of directing touch to the nervous system to open the pathways so that they can receive information and learn.

Children with Down Syndrome, for example, take longer to lay down those pathways than other children; it takes them longer to learn. Children with autism have sensory systems that have been out of kilter for some years, and their brains and bodies have been in an autistic pattern of growth and
development. Their nervous systems are easily stressed and overwhelmed.

What happens with the massage is that it steadily reverses the problems with touch. First, massage brings children awareness of their bodies and themselves. Then massage begins to bring normal feeling back to the skin. Over the first 6 months, the numb areas wake up, and the over-sensitive areas calm down. Children start to get a sense of self, and you see the independent little person come out. As feeling returns, children naturally show empathy. And the best part is that children seek out touch again because parent touch calms and reassures them. By the end, children can come out of their separate world and join our world more.

When touch problems go down, autistic behavior goes down too. That is because the problems of touch drive the problems with behavior. It’s cause and effect. The massage treats the cause. As a result, self-regulation problems improve almost as much as the touch problems do because of that one-to-one connection.

Self-regulation milestones are about being able to regulate the really important things like sleeping through the night; eating a variety of foods and digesting well; being able to handle change and transition without getting upset; and being able to pay attention to, look at, listen to and learn from other people. Because of that one to one connection, milestones can now be realized for the child which reduces parenting stress significantly and deepens the parent-child bonding.

Final Recommendations: If a child has hearing or vision loss, development falls behind, and behavioral problems continue until the loss is identified and corrected. The same is true for touch. Young children need all their senses in order to learn and develop normally. We recommend that when autism is diagnosed, the sense of touch be evaluated with an instrument like the Sense and Self-Regulation Checklist, and parents be trained in the QST home program. And we recommend that they be supported by a QST Child Therapist to continue the program until touch returns to normal.

Louisa Silva, M.D., M.P.H., is the lead researcher for QST massage treatment for children with autism. Her research has been published in scientific journals world-wide.