Touch and pain in school

In situations where one is supposed to touch one another – even if it’s merely holding hands – a hyper- or under-sensitive sense of touch is very important; this is particularly true in school life and in sports and games where physical contact is inevitable.

In addition to the general theme of ‘touch and pain’, special attention for this problem as it relates to the school environment is warranted.

For some – commonly the hypersensitive person – touch may be a very serious problem leading to open or covert avoidance. Therefore, the awareness of teachers is crucial to help mitigate the consequences of a student’s hypersensitivity.  Under-sensitive students, possibly boosted by lack of empathy or motor awkwardness, may touch others too roughly and/or unwittingly punch or pinch them. Most of these behaviors are not conducive to good ‘public relations’, to put it mildly.

Pain is an issue in physical schoolyard games. Non-autistic pupils establish their boundaries thanks to pain signals which may be absent in hypo-sensitive kids making injury a common risk. Oversensitivity to pain often goes unnoticed as well, especially in mainstream schools. Teachers can easily underestimate pain and parents are reported to have this tendency as well. (Research)

The deviancy of over- and under-sensitivity in touch and pain can be the beginning of a cascade of unfavorable social processes. They can contribute to an exceptional position of the autistic pupil, which, in turn, is often a precondition for exclusion and bullying. Those experiences can be relevant for both social acceptance and integration in school which – again – is one of the preconditions for the integration of people on the spectrum in society at large.

The Autism Toolbox, published by the Scottish government, is one of the very few resources to give proper attention to the problem of touch and to provide appropriate guidelines to deal with it in schools. It focuses on children who are “uncomfortable with light touch and can become upset / aggressive if touched unexpectedly.”

A number of recommendations to teachers are made, mainly regarding the position of such children in the classroom. (See recommendation 100 in the school context.)

The above also underscores the relevance of recommendations aimed at either reducing the risk of injury and/or exposing these deviancies as they relate to furniture, play sets, walking space, and the avoidance of rough walls to name but a few examples. Measures which promote supervision, among which the provision of sightlines are just as relevant as the preference for smaller groups in school which, in themselves, represent an application of the ‘generous space standards’ advocating increased space for people on the spectrum.

Also see ‘theme ‘touch and pain’.

*lack of empathy

Such a lack of empathy has been found to exist specifically with regard to pain among people with an Asperger diagnosis. This study shows that, in contrast to normal controls, a neurological response to the pain of others was lacking. See Minio-Paluello, Ilaria e.a., ‘Absence of Embodied Empathy During Pain Observation in Asperger Syndrome’, In: Biological Psychiatry, (2009)65, 55–62.
Nader, Rami, Tim F. Oberlander, Christine T. Chambers and Kenneth D. Craig, ‘Expression of Pain in Children With Autism’, In: Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(2004) 2(March/April) 88-97.