Role of touch in social development & emotional regulation in autism.
– This post is submitted by co-founders of Nordic Touch, Ryan & Rebekka.
Intro by Liliya: I have learned about the importance of touch in autism around the time my DS was diagnosed, in 2011. I read several books about Autism in general and High-Functioning Autism in Particular; the books by Gary Mesibov & Temple Grandin, as well as the book “Ten Things Your Autistic Child Wants You to Know” by Ellen Notbohm.
The idea of the squeeze machine by Temple Grandin was intriguing. I also recognised the fact that I was personally attracted to the idea: I have always been highly responsive to tactile stimuli: enjoying any type of massage and being one of the most ticklish person I know.
So, I was very excited when Ryan contacted me with an offer to write a blog post on this topic, and immediately agreed.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by Rebekka – the co-founder of the Nordic Cuddle – who invited me to join Nordic Cuddle’s medical advisory board. I was honoured and accepted, obviously. And I disclose this now as a potential conflict of interest.
If you follow the British comedian Russell Howard, you can watch a video of his experience at Nordic Cuddle on YouTube! 🙂
The Power of Touch with Nordic Cuddle.
Touch is a subject that has often had a taboo attached, but it has now been thrust into the spotlight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing has become the norm in many countries across the world, and people are talking about how touch deprived they feel. For a social species
such as our own, this ‘skin hunger’ as behavioural scientists call it, can have a major impact on our wellbeing.
In this blog post we’ll introduce you to Nordic Cuddle and explain how co-founders Rebekka and Ryan gained an interest in the power of touch.
We’ll also look at how cuddle therapy has helped clients on the autism spectrum and review some of the science around touch and autism.
A baby can be born without sight, without hearing, without the ability to taste or smell, and survive. A baby born and given too little touch dies.
It is that simple.
Touch is needed for life. -
Dr Phyllis Davis
Nordic Cuddle: what it is all about.
Nordic Cuddle is a cuddle therapy company based in London. They train new cuddle practitioners & provide a platform that connects these trained and DBS-checked practitioners with clients.
Cuddle therapy is a touch-based therapy which involves hugs, gentle arm rubs and stroking. While cuddle therapy isn’t a replacement for psychotherapy or counselling, it can be part of a wider approach to improving our overall wellbeing.
Some of the benefits that cuddle therapy can provide include:
Lowered stress levels
Reduced blood pressure
Immune system boost
Increased serotonin levels (which could lead to less pain and depression)
Nordic Cuddle is also building a medical and wellness advisory board to help increase awareness about the benefits of touch, and we are delighted to welcome Dr. Liliya Wheatcraft onboard.
Nordic Cuddle is run by co-founders Rebekka and Ryan.
How Rebekka became interested in the science of touch
My interest was first sparked when my South-American sister-in-law joined our family. She brought her highly tactile and affectionate Latin American culture to our Nordic (read stoic) lifestyle. This caused me to reflect on my own perceptions and behaviour towards touch as a means of expressing emotions. Ultimately this awakening made me more interested in the science of touch, and I started reading broadly about the tactile sense, and related topics such as emotional intelligence.
It’s now been three years since I became passionate about human touch.
I’m keen to explore how we can increase levels of safe touch and hugs, not just in our individual lives, but also collectively as a society. We’re a highly social species and we need touch, regardless of whether we like to admit it or not.
How Ryan became interested in the power of touch
While working as a Freelance Writer, I wrote a blog post for Rebekka about how affectionate touch can reduce feelings of social isolation. In the intervening two and half years I’ve gained a massive appreciation for just how crucial touch and social connection are for our wellbeing. To emphasise this point, we need only look at what happens when we are deprived of touch. The most shocking example can be seen with new-borns who need touch and affection to survive. In The Power of
Touch by Dr Phyllis Davis, she says, “A baby can be born without sight, without hearing, without the ability to taste or smell, and survive. A baby born and given too little touch dies. It is that simple.
Touch is needed for life.”
I also have a background in environmental issues and I’ve learnt there is a connection between our individual wellbeing and that of wider society. In The Loneliness Cure, Professor Kory Floyd writes,
“Sharing more affection with other people isn’t going to end poverty or solve the US unemployment problem. Hugging more won’t free us from dependence on foreign oil or eradicate world hunger,” but he goes on to say that, “To give and receive affection can solidify and strengthen your
connection to the world around you.”
I believe that with more social connection and affection in our lives, we will become more attuned to
the world around us, which could bring about positive social and environmental change.
After oxytocin inhalation, patients exhibited stronger interactions with the most socially cooperative partner and reported enhanced feelings of trust and preference… Oxytocin selectively increased patients’ gazing time on the socially informative region of the face, namely the eyes. Thus, under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism.
Working with autistic clients at Nordic Cuddle.
Nordic Cuddle has had numerous autistic clients to date. One of our clients participated in a Sky News interview, which you can watch here, where he explained how cuddle therapy helped him fill a void left by a lack of touch and relationships in his life. In this section, Rebekka will reflect on some of her sessions with autistic clients.
In my role as a cuddle therapist, I’ve delivered over 2,000 hours of cuddle sessions. I’ve had quite a few cuddle therapy clients who fall within the autistic spectrum during this time. I also have a couple of close people in my personal life with Asperger’s Syndrome, and also suspect that I might have mild tendencies.
Client guides the session
Once a client told me in the middle of a session that the stroking style I was using on his hand was
somewhat tickling him. I stopped using that technique and we realised together that it might be
better to use a bit more pressure to match his tactile sensitivity. The same client told me that he
often has a low mood, but that it had been boosted by our sessions. He explained that he felt more
grounded because of the social contact, and realised the need to pay attention to the feelings of others.
Touch and Oxytocin
This experience may resonate with others on the spectrum, in regards to possible challenges that
certain social situations and interactions present. The feelings experienced by the client may also be
due to the release of oxytocin from receiving hugs and touch. This can lead to a significant
improvement in social situations, including more eye contact and prosocial behaviours. In a 2010
study from France’s Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience, it was found that:
research of Oxytocin link to improvement in social interaction
“After oxytocin inhalation, patients exhibited stronger interactions with the most socially
cooperative partner and reported enhanced feelings of trust and preference… Oxytocin selectively
increased patients’ gazing time on the socially informative region of the face, namely the eyes. Thus,
under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism.”
cuddle as a safe space
Another autistic client told me how our sessions, and specifically the act of cuddling, helped him to feel more empathy and be more in touch with his own emotions. In this sense, cuddling is almost like an automatic form of meditation, which enables you to surrender to a warm presence in a safe container. This kind of space is ideal for anyone interested in exploring their innermost feelings and emotions without judgement or expectations.
Autism research in Touch by Dr Tiffany Field
The founder of the Touch Research Institute, Dr Tiffany Field, has pioneered research into touch.
Much of her research into touch and autism has focused on early childhood. We present below
some of these studies from two of her books.
In her fantastic book Touch, world-renowned touch researcher, Dr Tiffany Field noted that children
with autism are touch sensitive and may not enjoy being touched. However, she found that they do
enjoy receiving massages, suggesting that massage is predictable, compared to touch in typical social
situations which isn’t.
massage & autistic children
In one of Dr Field’s studies, autistic preschool children were given ten days of massage. After which it
was noted that disruptive classroom behaviour decreased, and they were better able to relate to
teachers. This was followed by a second study where, “Parents massaged their children with autism
every night. The children experienced the same benefits as in the first study, and their sleep also
Dr Field also mentions a review that listed additional benefits of massage for children with autism
such as, “improved language and social communication behaviour, and fewer conduct problems.”
Autism & Touch
In Touch Therapy, Dr Field conducted a further study with 22 preschool children with autism. These
children had an average age of 4.5 years old, and were assigned to either a touch therapy or a touch
control group.In the touch therapy group, the children received body rubs and smooth stroking movements. In the touch control group, a volunteer student sat with a child in her lap with her arms around the child and played games, such as selecting different colours and different shaped toys. Both groups had sessions for 15 minutes per day, for two days a week, over a four week period. The results revealed that:
Touch aversion went down for both the touch therapy and touch control group.
Off-task behaviour went down overall and significantly more for the touch therapy group.
Orienting to irrelevant sounds and noises went down overall and significantly more for the touch therapy group.
Stereotypic behaviours went down overall and significantly more for the touch therapy group.
The touch therapy group also showed, “Improvements in (1) joint attention, (2) behavior regulation, (3) social behavior, (4) initiating behavior.” Dr Field noted that the children didn’t appear aversive to either the touch therapy, or the lap sitting in the touch control group, suggesting that both of these activities were more predictable than social touch generally is.
Touch can be an uncomfortable experience for people on the autism spectrum. However, receiving
touch that is anticipated (such as in a cuddle session or massage session), and the right type of touch to meet an individual’s sensitivity, could be enjoyable and help improve a person’s overall wellbeing.
If you’re interested in finding out more about cuddle therapy after the lockdown ends, visit Nordic Cuddle’s website for more information.