“My Child Won’t Let Me Touch Him.” The Avoidant Child

I’ll never forget that autism support group meeting. I had been hit with the overwhelming news that my son Kyle had a lifelong disability, and felt like I was being strangled by pain, disappointment, and fear. There were adults seated all around me—of every shape, size, and race, who had been traveling the same road that I was now setting foot upon. In some ways that was reassuring, but at the same time it was a club I didn’t want to join.

“…he won’t allow me to touch him…”

After some introductions and announcements, a soft-spoken, tired-looking mother stood up, slowly. Pulling a kleenex from her purse, she talked about her son, whose autism was clearly more severe than Kyle’s. “I want so much just to hold him,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “But he won’t allow me to touch him without hysterical screams. So sometimes…” she paused, as if troubled by what she was about to say, “…I hug him while he’s asleep. I can usually get away with it then, if he’s sleeping soundly.”

I related with her grief in a way that I’d never experienced before. How would it be to have a child who refused your touch? With all of Kyle’s struggles, and his very apparent autism, this was one symptom he had somehow escaped. Kyle gave hugs freely. My son hugged me. What a profound blessing. From that moment on, I tried to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I was so struck by this woman’s predicament that I cried softly throughout the entire meeting. Afterwards, I went to find her, to offer my support. Truthfully, I wanted to hug her, this stranger, and I am not typically a touchy-feely person. But as I met her gaze, she quickly diverted her eyes, hung her head, and left. It was an unmistakable signal to leave her be. I think about her to this day.

What causes a child to be avoidant?

Avoidant children may react harshly and negatively to physical contact or communication, or they might lie limp and tolerate the sensations without responding in any meaningful way. It depends upon the way the child processes sensory information. (If the child has no obvious disabilities or delays, you should investigate emotional disturbance as a possible cause. A psychiatric assessment should be conducted.)

Avoidant children (without emotional disturbances) often have Sensory Integration Disorder, and therefore are either oversensitive or under-sensitive to physical contact. In the case of oversensitivity, the child might feel intense sensory overload, (chaos and frustration) from the feeling of being touched. And in the case of under-sensitivity, the child might feel unaffected by the physical contact, and even “bored” by it. In that situation, it might take a great deal more sensory input to get her attention.

In either case, the child chooses to do what is “safe.” Children with oversensitivity to physical contact elect to be avoidant, because the sensations of touch are just too overwhelming to handle. Children with under-sensitivity simply don’t seem to care about the contact. Avoidance gives a sense of control.

What can be done?

First of all, as hard it may seem, you should not take the avoidance personally. In no way is the child’s behavior a reflection on your parenting skills, nor does it demonstrate whether or not your child loves you. This is a disorder of brain functioning, period. See it as an opportunity to experiment, learn, and discover. You’ve been given a challenge with this child, and you will have to uncover the best ways to reach your child through trial and error.

Slowly, carefully, and with great patience, you will need to include yourself in your child’s behaviors, until he makes even the tiniest of connections with you. I remember watching a television portrayal of a mother who literally got on the floor and spun plates with her autistic son. Eventually he made an association with her as being part of the stimulating behaviors he craved. He allowed her to participate, and she made a breakthrough where she was later able to introduce other activities, then speech, and eventually develop a more satisfying parental bond with her boy.

Use curiosity to connect…

Enter your child’s world in a way that is not overly intrusive, threatening, or annoying. Follow your child’s signals. Be patient. Curiosity is often a key to connection. What activity could you do that would make your child curiously interested? What does she like to do? Do lights intrigue her? Does he like spinning wheels? Could you interest her in blowing into a wind spinner? Does he like to tap, and you could purchase a drum? Use your parental inspiration to enter your avoidant child’s world. Don’t expect immediate miracles, but have hope and determination.