April 13th, 2006

ozarque figure

Touch language -- answers to some questions, part 1

I'd like to try to answer some of the questions that have been in your recent comments. But first -- the disclaimer. Nothing I am about to say is based on research studies, let alone double-blind ones; it's based only on my own observations and experience and records over the past thirty years as I've worked with the topic of touch dominance and touch language.

1. In my experience, then, you see two extremes in touch dominant persons with regard to their own public touch behavior. At one extreme, you find the person who by American-English cultural standards touches excessively, is forever hugging and patting and grabbing shoulders and kissing cheeks and picking stuff off clothing and the like -- not in any sexual fashion, and not with any violence, just as part of his or her body language. These people are more often women, not for any biological reasons but because the culture is willing to cut women just a bit more slack about unrequested touching, and is very intolerant about behavior of the same kind in men. At the other extreme, you find the touch dominant person who never touches in public except in such sanctioned behaviors as shaking hands, and who -- to my eyes -- looks terribly uncomfortable in his or her skin. These people are usually terrified that they'll somehow touch inappropriately, and so they try to eliminate touching from their public behavior completely, something that they don't find easy to do. Often they are men -- big, powerful men -- who as boys were constantly being told that they had to be careful with all contact because they were likely to hurt people. And in between the extremes, people fall at individual points on the continuum. It's very difficult to spot a touch dominant person based just on the amount of touching they do in public, and that's true for all touching, not just the touching of other people. TD kids are constantly being told not to touch because "you'll break it" or "you'll hurt it" or -- in the case of plants -- "you'll kill it." Sometimes, they end up almost afraid to move at all.

2. You asked for some examples of times when I've discovered that the cause of a problem was touch dominance and that the solution was to work directly with the touch dominance. One of the most common examples is the person -- often, but not always, a child -- who has acquired a label like "slow learner" or "learning-disabled" or "hyperactive" or "dyslexic".... and so on. Once a label like that appears in a child's school records, it's very hard to get it removed, and it affects everything that teachers do in their interactions with that child thereafter.

When the label is the result of expert diagnosis and is accurate, it can be a tremendous help, especially if there are good methods for adapting instruction to the diagnosis. But I have worked with a number of individuals who had been wrongly labeled, and for whom the only reason they "couldn't learn" was that they were profoundly touch dominant. I have worked with touch dominant college students who were in their third or fourth semester of Remedial English and were sent to me because "he/she just can't learn." The saddest thing about these young people, for me, was that they believed they couldn't learn. They'd heard it all their lives. They'd say, "I'm stupid, Dr. Elgin. If I wasn't stupid, they wouldn't keep on putting me in Remedial English." And the hardest task I faced with them was convincing them that they weren't stupid, and that they for sure could learn. That often took longer than the actual teaching did.

Don't misunderstand me -- I'm not saying that there aren't valid cases of hyperactivity and learning disability and dyslexia and all the rest. I'm sure there are. But a touch dominant person who is mistaken for one of those cases can be in for a terribly hard time, with no way out. Adapting instruction to that person's need for input from the sensory system of touch is an efficient way of finding out whether the problem is really touch dominance instead; if it is, it will help -- if it isn't, it won't.