A Note to Parents from Dr. Silva

Why Do We Focus On Touch and Why is Touch Important?

The organ of touch, the symbol is the hand, but it isn’t the hand. It’s the entire skin, and the skin covers the body. There is a direct connection between the skin and the brain so that when you touch your child it makes a connection in the brain, “Oh, this is my hand!”, and that connection is what builds the ability to use the hand. Meanwhile, your touch is more important to your child than anybody else. Your child responds to your touch faster. She calms quicker. He is more reassured by your touch that anybody else.

In autism, research shows that children have problems with touch – it doesn’t feel so good. Children might withdraw from touch, or they might not notice it. Some areas of the body might feel okay, but other areas hurt with even light touch, and yet other areas are numb when injured.

It’s a very confusing picture of the body for the child’s brain, and this patchwork of different feelings makes it hard for the child to develop a whole sense of self. As a result, there is no way that parent touch can work in the same way as it does in typically developing children. In autism, touch doesn’t calm children down, and children don’t seek it out as much for comfort and reassurance.

So if there’s something you can do on a daily basis to calm them, to focus them, to open them up to learning, then you want to do that. There is something that parents can do for the problems with touch and it is called Qigong Sensory Treatment (QST) massage!

Qigong massage is an organized form of touch from Chinese medicine. The parent gives it every day. It’s like a daily medicine. It takes the stress out of the child so that they can deal with what comes to them during the day, and at the same time, it’s a way of directing touch to the nervous system to open the pathways so that they can receive information and learn.

Children with Down Syndrome, for example, take longer to lay down those pathways than other children; it takes them longer to learn. Children with autism have sensory systems that have been out of kilter for some years, and their brains and bodies have been in an autistic pattern of growth and development. Their nervous systems are easily stressed and overwhelmed.

What happens with the massage is that it steadily reverses the problems with touch. First, massage brings children awareness of their bodies and themselves. Then massage begins to bring normal feeling back to the skin. Over the first 6 months, the numb areas wake up, and the over-sensitive areas calm down. Children start to get a sense of self, and you see the independent little person come out. As feeling returns, children naturally show empathy. And the best part is that children seek out touch again because parent touch calms and reassures them. By the end, children can come out of their separate world and join our world more.

When touch problems go down, autistic behavior goes down too. That is because the problems of touch drive the problems with behavior. It’s cause and effect. The massage treats the cause.

Louisa Silva, M.D., M.P.H., is the lead researcher for QST massage treatment for children with autism. Her research has been published in scientific journals world-wide.

  • Silva, L. & Tindall, P. My Child’s First Year of QST Massage: A Parent Workbook (2016). Guan Yin Press, LLC, McMinnville, Oregon.
  • www.qsti.org