Touch and the Autistic Child: The Brain Explains

The simple challenge of hugging the autistic child can leave parents bewildered and frustrated, but by understanding a child’s brain parents might find new ways to cope.

Martha Kaiser, a neuroscientist from Yale, explains that new research shows that “the brains of people high in autistic traits aren’t coding touch as socially relevant.”

She explains that there’s a part of the brain, called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), that makes these kids sensitive to touch. “The OFC is very important for coding reward so maybe they’re feeling the touch but in these individuals, their brains don’t code that type of touch as being as rewarding as in individuals with fewer autistic traits.”

The findings are reported in a Time Magazine article:

Yale neuroscientists recruited 19 young adults and imaged their brain activity as a researcher lightly brushed them on the forearm with a soft watercolor paintbrush. In some cases, the brushing was quick, and in others slow: prior studies have shown that most people like slow brushing and perceive it as affectionate contact, while the faster version is felt as less pleasant and more tickle-like. None of the participants in the current study had autism, but the researchers evaluated them for autistic traits — things like a preference for sameness, order and systems, rather than social interaction. They found that participants with the highest levels of autistic traits had a lower response in key social brain regions — the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) — to the slow brushing.

According to Martha Kaiser, senior author of the study and associate director of the Child Neuroscience Laboratory at the Yale Child Study Center, the STS is a critical hub of the social brain. “This region is important for perceiving the people around us, for visual social stimuli and for perceiving social versus nonsocial sounds,” she says. The current findings suggest that the region is also involved in processing social touch and that its response is linked to the individual’s social ability, she says. The OFC, in contrast, helps the brain evaluate experiences — whether something is likely to be good or bad and if it involves pleasure or pain.

The ability to be physically involved with a child can be an extremely helpful tool when it comes to teaching and parenting. Researchers are currently working on ways to help autistic children respond more favorably to touch. If introduced early on these methods could have a positive impact on a child’s life and education.