Autism, Autonomy, and Touch Avoidance


  • Elle Felicity Henderson Open Polytechnic of New Zealand



Autism, Conversation Analysis, Touch, Embodiment, Action


Touch is an important component of many social experiences for many people. Autistic children commonly avoid social touch more than non-autistic peers. It is generally thought that this is due to autistic individuals experiencing hyper- or hyposensitivity of touch. While this is undoubtedly the case at least some of the time, studies of touch and autism have often involved decontextualised experimental settings or post-hoc reports on touch by autistic people or their common social interactants (i.e., parents). As such, there is very little research that looks at social touch in interactions involving autistic people and studies how it naturally occurs and how it is managed in the moment. Using multimodal Conversation Analysis, I analyse a collection of cases of social touch in the form of parents' cuddles or embraces with their autistic children. I demonstrate here what these cuddles can look like, how they can unfold over time with both autistic children and their parents mutually participate in building intimate sensorial moments. I also show more problematic moments where the child resists, abandons, or misunderstands a cuddle from their parent (or attempt to secure one) demonstrating that, in these cases, the trouble for the autistic children was not touch sensitivity but the prioritisation of courses of action that social touch would impede. As such the children display that the social touch is avoided or negatively evaluated due to its social nature, not its physical/sensational one. In demonstrating this I argue that not everything that might look like a sign of sensory difference is one.