Touch is used to reassure people. It is a way of saying ‘I am here’ and at times when a person is in need of comfort has the power to communicate more than words can. However, there are many different types and qualities of touch and people can vary widely in their preferences. People process touch differently and some people may find certain sensations heightened, or more intense. Touch experiences that most people enjoy can be unpleasant and aversive to people with particular sensitivities or past negative experiences of touch.
It can seem counter intuitive to find gentle touches unpleasant. We were probably told as children that gentle touches do not hurt, so they are okay. But for some people a light touch from another person, the feeling of a label, piece of clothing or hair touching them can instil in them the sort of alarm that we all feel when a tickle gets out of control – a panicky distressing sensation.
Think of touch in terms of the clarity of the experience, a firm touch sends a strong easily readable message to the brain, a light touch can be a weak confusing message. Clear touch experiences can protect someone against feeling disorientated and help them to connect with the world and the people within it, benefiting their wellbeing.
Guidance and instructions
Consider touch on a scale from the lightest of tickles to the firmest of hugs. Where on the scale does touch feel safest? A firm hug from a friend may provide a feeling of safety and security, whereas being tickled by the same person, even though you may still trust them, could be quite unpleasant and cause a feeling of insecurity and tension.
Notice how the person you support receives and responds to touch. If they appear alarmed by gentle touches, for example, if their response is to flinch or trying to get away, do not immediately interpret this as them being touch aversive. Instead try a firmer more reassuring touch and observe for how they respond. Learn by sensitive exploration what the most preferred quality of touch is for the person and adjust your use of touch with them accordingly.
Some ways to enable the person to receive more firm pressure touch include:
- Giving a hand or foot massage.
- Pressing or squeezing their shoulder, or upper arms.
- Body brushing – use a bath brush and stroke it along someone’s limbs in a rhythmic fashion.
- Wrapping – wrap them in a big towel or a stretchy piece of cloth.
What to observe, assess and record
Reflect on the questions above and talk to others who know the person about their observations and experiences of involving touch. This will help to build a picture of what works for the person and how best to support them.
© Joanna Grace: Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
For more guidance and information on how to make objects for sensory-being and what types of sensory experience are most likely to be accessible, read Sensory-being for Sensory Beings by Joanna Grace, published by Routledge
Connect with Jo on social media to continue this sensory conversation:
Created October 2020