Autism’s Sixth Sense

Consider affective touch

A recent article notes that Kevin Pelphrey, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, suggests the perception of ‘affective touch’ may uncover a cause of autism, or, at the very least, provide an early detection tool. 

The article goes on to distinguish between discriminative touch, which conveys signals about pressure, vibration and stretching of the skin, and affective touch signals, which register in emotion centers in the brain.

Evidently, these affective touch signals give emotional context to physical contact; they relay the warm feelings that can come with a pat on the shoulder from a friend, for example, or the prickly, uncomfortable feeling that can occur when we bump into a stranger.

In this way, the fibers serve as a mode of communication between people, a channel not of physical information but of intimacy. “These fibers are signaling something that isn’t really touch; it’s something we don’t have a name for,” says Håkan Olausson, professor of clinical neuroscience at Linköping University in Sweden, who co-discovered the fibers in people in the 1980s. Much of a baby’s sense of the world is conveyed through touch. They are cradled, rocked, cuddled, patted and stroked. If babies’ perceptions of these touches are altered in some way, it could transform how they situate themselves in the world and learn to interact with others. Those changes, in turn, could account for autism’s hallmark social challenges. It is far too early in the research to make any firm connections, but contributors to this article all acknowledge some version of this concept

Read the complete article in Science Magazine.

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