hand holding with autism bracelet hand holding with autism bracelet Touching can be difficult for people with autism, and scientists now know why. (Photo: Zahraa Saleh / Shutterstock)

Scientists now know why people with autism don't like to be touched

It's not because they're anti-social or rude. A new study unlocks a mystery in how autism affects people's brains.

Not everyone likes to be touched. But for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this is more than a simple preference; according to a new study, it's more likely the result of a tangible, physiological reaction in the brain.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel, offers an intriguing window into the workings of the brain in people with autism, which can often be enigmatic and puzzling.

"Because touch plays a critical role in our social emotional development and provides us with essential means to express our emotions, establish intimacy, and maintain social bonds, studying and characterizing the way in which social touch is processed by both healthy and impaired individuals are important steps," said study co-author Leehe Peled-Avron, a graduate student in the psychology department at the university.

Man drawing brain on mirrorLearning how the brain reacts to stimuli is key to understanding autism. (Photo: Bangkokhappiness/Shutterstock)

The researchers analyzed brain scans of 53 people, some of whom were on the autism spectrum, and measured for something they call hypervigilance. They found, consistent with common wisdom, that people with autism respond differently to touch than neurotypical people. But looking deeper, they were able to see why: their brain scans showed that the person was reacting the same way that someone with a phobia would react.

Conclusion? People with autism don't just dislike being touched; they are physiologically affected by it.

And as with many scientific studies, this one can be used to inform future research and possibly alter the way therapists and doctors treat patients.

“The results of this study improve our understanding of people with ASD," Peled-Avron said from her office in Israel. "Social touch is an integral part of our lives, in both happy and sad events, and now we can understand why for some people on the autistic spectrum all these events arouse anxiety."


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