by Emily Kuehn
figures by Kaitlyn Choi
When you think about your five senses what is the one you most fear to lose? Informal polling of my friends and family shows that most people don’t want to lose their vision. To be fair, we rely heavily on our sight, but most people don’t even consider what it might be like to lose their sense of touch. What if you couldn’t feel a caress from your spouse or a gentle breeze? Using our sense of touch is a crucial way that we interact with our world, comprising many sensations, including pain, temperature, itch, vibration, and pressure.
Touch, as an area of study, has received very little attention from researchers until recently. Interestingly, in addition to learning more about our sense of touch in general, research has found ways that touch can be harnessed to provide therapy for a variety of disorders. One such disorder you might be surprised to find can benefit from touch therapy is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here, we will explore the tactile deficits observed in ASD patients and how they highlight a new avenue for potential treatments and interventions.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
ASD describes a group of complex related neurodevelopmental disorders. Hallmarks of ASD include deficits in social communication and interaction as well as restricted, repetitive behaviors, activities, or interests. ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. With no known singular cause [1,2] and at a prevalence of about 1 in 68 children in the United States , this disease continues to be an important public health concern.
Since there are no FDA-approved drugs that can cure or treat ASD, therapies generally focus on alleviating symptoms. Because of the unique spectrum of symptoms and diversity in patient responses to treatment, many turn to complementary and alternative therapies . Such alternative therapies range from modified diets and vitamin or herbal supplements to mind-body interventions like meditation or acupuncture .
While these alternative therapies are gaining momentum, it should be noted that the evidence and support for such treatments by the medical community is mixed. Most medical experts agree that treatments should be based on principles of evidence-based medicine, integrating clinical expertise, patient/family values, and the best evidence for efficacy . By these standards, most complementary and alternative treatments have not been adequately studied . However, one therapy that has mounting evidence of support is massage or touch therapy.
What does touch have to do with it?
Certainly, you know from personal experience that touch – in the right context and from the right person – can be incredibly soothing. But you might be curious how touch therapy fits in to care for ASD patients, who often reject touch from strangers. To understand potential benefits to children or adults with ASD, it helps to first consider what we know about touch and touch therapy in populations not diagnosed with ASD.
Innocuous, or non-painful, touch can be broken down into two basic categories: discriminative and affective. Discriminative touch is what enables you to find your keys in your pocket; it senses pressure, shape, texture, vibration, and slip. Affective touch, also known as social or emotional touch, is what makes the caress from a lover or friend feel good; it senses slow stroke and temperature. These two types of touch are detected by different neurons in the skin and ultimately activate different regions of the brain . For both types of touch, the process is similar: neurons in your skin are optimally tuned to respond to particular stimuli, such as movement of hair or vibration, and together they detect the tactile information of your experiences. This means when you grab your keys off the table for example, some neurons respond to the pressure of the keys pressing into your skin, others sense the curves and edges of the keys, and some even detect small slips or movements of the keys to help you adjust your grip and not drop them. Tactile experiences are built by activating a combination of these touch-sensitive neurons, each with their unique built-in sensitivities. This tactile information is ultimately sent to the brain, allowing you to perceive tactile experiences .
Affective touch has only just recently begun to receive attention from researchers for a number of reasons. First, disorders of pain and discriminative touch have received more attention in the medical community, as pain affects almost all of us at some point in our lives, and its management remains an important area of research. Second, the neurons in the skin responsible for detecting affective touch have only recently been definitively identified. Termed “C-tactile (CT) afferents,” these neurons are found only in hairy skin, such as that of the forearm or back (as opposed to glabrous skin, which is located on your palms and soles of your feet). The neurons are optimally tuned to the slow velocity, light pressure, and comfortable skin temperature of a caress or light touch from another . First discovered in cats in 1939 , CT afferents were largely ignored until they were discovered in humans in the 1990s .
Interestingly, when CT afferents are stimulated in humans, a part of the brain termed the insular cortex is activated, in addition to brain areas that are normally activated by touch. This cortex is part of the limbic system, an association of areas known to be responsible for processing emotions . CT afferents’ direct connection to the limbic system distinguishes them from other touch-sensitive neurons, which, when stimulated, only activate the primary somatosensory cortex – a region of the brain responsible for processing touch information . This difference of where information is processed in the brain points to the CT afferents as the potential initiators of emotional, hormonal and associative responses to caress-like, skin-to-skin contact between individuals.
Touch deficits in ASD
Several links between ASD and deficits in discriminative and affective touch have been noted, both anecdotally and in scientific research. 96% of ASD patients report altered sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and a majority of those cases include tactile sensitivities . Although tactile sensitivity is commonly reported in ASD, it has received very little attention by doctors and researchers . Patients can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to tactile stimuli, meaning that they feel touch more or less intensively than other people. This can manifest in different ways in patients: some ASD patients cannot wear certain clothing because of very specific tactile preferences, while others may find the act of going outside stressful because stimuli like rain or wind can be unpredictable and painful . ASD patients also often display tactile defensiveness, exhibiting behavioral and emotional responses that are negative and out of proportion to tactile stimuli that most people deem non-painful .
A recent fMRI study of 19 healthy patients looked at changes in brain activity in response to brushing their arms at slow and fast speeds. Researchers also assessed participants’ “autistic traits” by asking them to rank their preference for social touch, as well as self-assess daily life preferences and tendencies. Researchers noted that “social areas” of the brain (including the insular cortex and other regions associated with social interactions and/or affective touch) showed greater activation to slower, gentler brush strokes than to fast ones. This corroborated the finding that CT afferents are optimally activated at slow speeds and project to the insular cortex. Interestingly, while none of the 19 patients was diagnosed with ASD, those with more autistic traits (low preference for social touch, for example) showed a lower response to the slow brushing in these social brain areas . Therefore, as depicted in Figure 1, people with stronger ASD traits had a less positive perception of affective touch.
Using Touch Therapy in ASD
In general, massage or touch therapy can comprise many different methods or techniques, but it generally involves low to moderate pressure (this is distinct from deep muscle-stimulating Swedish massage) applied by another person and across various areas of the body, such as the back, neck, and shoulders. Touch therapy has been noted to have immediate and long-term effects on the body’s biochemistry, including decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which play roles in mood regulation, movement, impulse control, and more .
In its specific application to ASD patients, studies have shown that touch therapy can relieve common physical and mental ailments associated with the disorder, including muscle spasms and social anxiety. Touch therapy can have beneficial effects on the linguistic and social abilities of ASD patients, and can boost the effects of conventional therapies when used together .
In addition to the previously mentioned biochemical effects, touch therapy can also be used to stimulate the vagus nerve, which has various outputs to other areas of the body, including the heart. Stimulating vagal activity (which can be achieved by massaging the neck correctly) has myriad beneficial effects for ASD patients. It can decrease heart rate, which may ultimately allow ASD patients to focus more and sleep better . It can also decrease incidence of seizures, from which as many as one third of ASD patients suffer . Indeed, it was shown that vagal nerve stimulation (VNS, delivered via a pacemaker-like device implanted in the chest) both decreased incidence of seizures and improved alertness and ability to focus in ASD patients . These effects are likely mediated by an increase in the neurotransmitter GABA, which functions to prevent neurons from firing. Levels of GABA in the nervous system increase following VNS , which would lead to less neuronal firing and would ultimately lead to less seizures (which arise from uncontrolled neuronal firing). Interestingly, mutations in the gene coding for the GABA receptor are associated with ASD and tactile deficits [25, 26], providing further evidence for this link. The multifaceted way in which touch therapy can benefit ASD patients is illustrated in Figure 2.
But wait, how can touch therapy possibly benefit patients who are hypersensitive to touch? To answer this question we first have to consider what social touch experiences are like for ASD patients. In general, light touch tends to over-stimulate and aggravate ASD patients (the underlying reason for this is still unclear), therefore moderate- to deeper-pressure massages are preferred. Furthermore, much like a strong gust of wind, touch from another person can be unpredictable; when you are hypersensitive to light touch, such sensations without warning can be aversive and even frightening or painful. Adequate warning or predictability (achieved by talking the patient through treatment or using self-administration of touch therapy ) may help patients avoid the stress they usually experience from social touch. Once the barriers of administering touch therapy to ASD patients are overcome, patients can achieve the same physical and emotional benefits observed in non-ASD patients.
The complex relationship between tactile deficits and social impairments in patients of ASD is still unclear, but researchers are finally looking at the common symptom of tactile abnormalities as a potential route for both better understanding these disorders as well as administering treatment. While there remains a general lack of research in this area, and many existing studies are biased or lack proper controls, the exciting news is that more controlled and careful studies about touch deficits in ASD are being conducted and planned. In addition, touch therapy in general as well as for ASD patients is being more seriously studied and considered by medical professionals. Patients of ASD should still be mindful of consulting their doctor before pursuing any alternative treatments, but should also keep an eye out for new discoveries in this exciting area of research.
Emily Kuehn is a 5th year graduate student in the Neuroscience Program at Johns Hopkins University currently studying neurons involved in processing the sense of touch in the skin and spinal cord.
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? Searching for a verdict in the vaccination debate (SITN):
What is autism? (Autism Speaks):
The Social Power of Touch (Scientific American):
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14 thoughts on “Research into our sense of touch leads to new treatments for autism”
Thank you for the comprehensive picture you have presented in your article. I have worked in the area of autism and the tactile afferent system for many years and appreciate the comprehensive way you integrate research from neuroscience, genetics, autism and the C-Tactile system. Your work parallels my areas of interest and pursuit and so I am writing both to thank you for your comprehensive article and to add, I hope, some useful information about work and research being done in this same area but that is not included in your piece.
Louisa Silva, MD, has amassed a body of research over 14 years on a parent-delivered massage program that, I believe, offers a significant contribution to this subject. The results from Dr. Silva’s NIH-MCH research study were recently published in the Autism Research and Treatment Journal http://www.hindawi.com/journals/aurt/2015/904585/. This study includes data from the first 5-months of a 3-year study and corroborates previous research on the parent-delivered intervention http://qsti.org/qigong-massage-research/published-studies/autism/ .
Dr. Silva’s research speaks directly to the content of your article and demonstrates the complex relationship between tactile and sensory difficulties and the social, behavioral and language difficulties in children with autism. Research data confirmed the parent-delivered massage protocol to be effective in decreasing the tactile and sensory disabilities in children across the autism spectrum. Symptoms of autism were reduced, behavior and language improved and parenting stress was greatly reduced. Interestingly, once tactile and sensory disabilities are normalized, the child gains the capacity to “return to” and essentially re-claim those self-regulatory milestones that were often missed in the first year of life (regulation of sleep, digestion, ability to self-soothe and social engagement).
Preliminary data shows a 50% loss of C-tactile afferents in children with autism. Information about the study can be found at https://www.facebook.com/QSTImassage/?fref=nf .
I believe that this broad and entirely parallel area of research will complement your current area of interest. I would be most interested in your thoughts once you have time to look through it.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! The links and references you’ve provided here are quite useful and helpful. As a researcher, I have a much better understanding of the biology of these studies, not always knowing what is in clinical practice or that patients might even be aware of. I am very happy to see these therapies are on the rise and thank you for your information on these therapies!
Additional information I did not have space to include in this article are the studies linking genetic components of autism to these disturbances in the somatosensory system. Variation in a gene encoding for the GABA receptor (GABRB3 gene) has been demonstrated to be a genetic and heritable cause of ASD in some patients. Mice with mutations in the Gabrb3 gene show differences in tactile and heat sensitivities as compared to controls (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3320514/). Another group demonstrated differences in tactile sensitivity in humans and their association with genetic variation in GABRB3 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22769427). It is an exciting area of research that may allow us a better understanding of how these sensitivities may arise and therefore help guide treatment.
I’m very happy to see there is excitement and interest surrounding this area of research – I feel it is a very important area to focus on! Thank you again for your feedback.
An additional study you might find of interest http://qsti.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Prevalence-article-published-version-8-21-13.pdf
Qigong Sensory Training (QST) is an evidence-based treatment for autism which has been shown to normalize the sense of touch in young children with autism and reduce the severity of autism by an average of 30% in the first five months.
The intervention involves a specialized parent-delivered massage protocol known as QST massage for autism. Parents give the massage dialy, and trained therapists provide parent support and weekly child treatment.
Read the research and learn more about QST for autism at http://www.qsti.org.
Thank you so much for pointing me to this therapy and resource. I am happy to see such effective treatment in practice!
I have already explained exactly the cause of autism and the tactile therapy back in 2013, in my blog:
Read especially the part that says:
So now that we know what causes the so called autism, lets see how it can be cured!
Restoring the missing link, the missing bond, the missing sense of security! Sensory integration and particularly that part of Sensory integration that deals with the sense of Touch is the ONLY true way to help a child recreate or complete building the emotional bond it needs. Activities shared by the parent and child (NOT a therapist!!!) that include all forms of physical contact such as: massage, deep pressure of the skin (back, arms, legs), hugs (as tight as [possible), tickling, wrestling (parent/child), and many more. For more info check Ayres Sensory Integration, Dunn Sensory Integration, Infant and Toddler massage techniques, etc. Apply these during the day at regular intervals, especially before and after stressful activities or activities that hold potential sensory over loadig for the child. Do not use practices such as ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), do not use PECS, or other communication devises or models. Talk to the child, engage it in activities around the house, play with it more, and touch it hug it kiss it, massage it (before going to sleep at night is one of the best medicines). If the child is sensitive to touch it means that it has developed a sensory defensiveness to help it cope with the sensory (touch) deficiency! Never touch the child as a satisfaction to your own need for reassurance. The child needs to be touched when it needs it, when it will cover its own need not the parent’s. The child will know the difference and if it sees that touch means satisfying another’s need than its own, it will become defensive and develop an unwillingness to be touched!!!
Why particularly the sense of touch?
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels drive up. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in pair bonding. Prairie voles, one of nature’s most monogamous species, produce oxytocin in spades. This hormone is also greatly stimulated during sex, birth, breast feeding—the list goes on. Obviously, the emotionally starved child (autistic) once it receives the emotional nutrition in needs through Touch of Love (Love in its pure form), will start regaining lost ground and develop!
what about autistic children who are not starved emotionally? what about the autistic children who received that kind of input from day 1.
I’ve GOT to try this! Is it available in norther Illinois?
The anxiety and trouble with social skills seen in people with autism stem largely from neurons outside the brain that govern touch, suggests a mouse study published today in Cell.
Hey Hector Im writing a little review about the feasability of using MDMA in individuals with ASD suffering from social anxiety. Could you provide me with a reference of the statement you mentioned? would be really helpful
Hi Emily, did you look at the randomized controlled trials done on Sensory Enrichment Therapy at UCI? The sense of touch is one of the core sensory systems to be used in the program to induce an elevated state of plasticity in the brain. Results on the 6-month trial include an increase in IQ by an average of 10 points, 21% of the children in the enrichment group moved up by one classification on ADOS, 42% improved by 5 points or more on their CARS test, etc.
– First Clinical Study: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bne-127-4-487.pdf
I would include more links, but the comment would be marked as spam
– Replication Clinical Study: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9sw054xg
– Study Number Three
In 2016, Neural Plasticity published a study of 1,002 children aged 1 to 18 who followed Sensory Enrichment Therapy. This data came from those who had enrolled in our Mendability program directly. You can see on page 10 starts a list of 300 symptoms that were tracked by parents and the improvement reported in 6 months of therapy. It is on a 5-point scale, where 0 is the worst possible score, and 5 is perfect. So, for example, a change of 0.5 on that scale is 10% of full scale in 6 months of Sensory Enrichment Therapy. If you see any symptoms in that document that you would like to see improvements in, then it will indicate about how much it may be expected to improve in each 6 month period.
Great article. Plus, A brain chemical known as oxytocin is released when we hug or kiss a loved one. This hormone helps to drive up feelings of happiness and drive away feelings of stress. It is also a neurotransmitter in the brain, which means it helps us to bond with others.
“Research has shown that by simply hugging or stroking for a few minutes, we can increase levels of oxytocin—a hormone associated with feelings of warmth, love, and happiness.”
Our bodies are powerful beyond measure. Thanks for article!