In gentle teaching we often intentionally make use of touches. We even try to touch a person - who seems to reject our touches or has fear for them – in a warm and safe way.
From the early years of gentle teaching on, this has been an issue of many discourses. Many people think it is not appropriate to touch a person warmly in a care giving relationship. There are even agencies who don’t allow their staff to touch a person this way.

Several reasons are given for this

  • it is supposed to be inappropriate to touch a person in a care giving relationship otherthat strictly functional.
  • It isn’t respectful to touch a person who doesn’t ask for this or who might even be afraid of being touched.
  • warm touches can easily turn into a sexual dimension or can be interpreted as such.

Beside these reasons, there are of course people who find it difficult to touch another person warmly if there is no intimate relationship.


The importance of touches

Our hands are more than just instruments to perform practical tasks. Like our eyes and words, it are important tools for communication. Intentionally or unintentionally we can, by the way we touch a person, give him an important message, and the person can learn what he is up to with us.


Every human being, by nature, has moments when he needs physical nourishment by others: when he feels sad, lonely, insecure, etc. People, who depend on the support of professional caregivers for their daily well-being, often lack this kind of experiences. The physical contact they have with their caregivers is limited to functional help with daily activities and self-care. Or they may have negative experiences, when they are grabbed by caregivers, being isolated or tight down to their bed or a chair, or being hold in a ‘physical management technique’.  It’s no wonder that these people don’t trust the initiative of others to touch them or they me even have learned to be afraid of it.


This pattern we want to break through with gentle teaching. We want to teach the person that when we reach out our hands, and when we touch him, it’s a sign that he can feel safe with us and unconditionally loved by us. This is something we can’t just tell the person. He literally has to experience and feel it. This is why we have to use touches, even when the person doesn’t ask for it or seems to be afraid of it.


Touches are literally very tangible. It’s a direct way of making contact. Sometimes a person is difficult to reach. For instance when he is in high stress and turns emotionally inward. He may close his eyes and  ears, and the only way to get through to him seems to be by shouting … or by grabbing on him.


In gentle teaching we don’t want to shout or grab a person, especially not when he already feels emotionally lost. But we do want to get through to him in moments of stress to help him. We would like to do this by touching him gently and by this to invite him to open up for us and accept our support. We can only hope to do this if we first have invested in teaching him to feel safe and unconditionally loved when we touch him.


Respectful touches

Fear for being touched is not natural; it is developed by negative experiences and conditioning. From this perspective it isn’t respectful to decide not to touch a person who has fear for being touched. We would let him hold his fears, instead of helping him get rid of it. If beside that, due to his behavior when he is in stress, he might still have negative experiences with being touched by others.

Charley, a man with autism, doesn’t like being touched. When we try to touch him, he will withdraw his body to avoid it. His caregivers decided that it isn’t respectful and appropriate to make Charley get used to being touched warmly by them. He doesn’t ask for it and he obviously doesn’t seem to like it.
But once and a while Charley is very emotional and stressed and then he can’t control his anger. The caregivers use their alarm system and when help has arrived  three caregivers, who have been trained in physical management,  hold him down and bring him to his room. He has to stay there until is he is relaxed again.

Is this a double standard? We don’t touch Charley warmly because he doesn’t ask for it, but we do hold him with three caregivers – for what he didn’t ask either -  on moments when he actually needs our warm support. I wouldn’t call it a double standard, but more like a professional blindness. The intention may be good, but they what is most important.


There are also people who do not want to be touched because they feel it isn’t in line with their self-image.  If this self-image is realistic and if it doesn’t withhold the person from accepting our support when he actually needs it, that’s ok and we should respect it. Maybe we will try to shake hands or give a friendly tip on the shoulder, but that will be it.


Preventing sexual feelings

Part is respectful touching is avoiding to touch a person on the erogenous zones. When we touch a person we serve, it has nothing to do with sexuality. Not from our side, neither do we want to arouse sexual feelings in the other person. Beside not touching the erogenous zones, it’s important to be fully aware of why and how we are touching the person. If there is any confusion in us, we will give this confusion to the other.


When we touch a person it is not because we need the touch, but because we convinced that he needs it (even if he seems to reject our touches). When we touch a person because we long for it, we abuse the person and pull energy out of him; when we touch because we feel the person needs it, we give energy to him.


We touch a person the way we would touch a good friend who needs our support or the way a parent would touch their children when they need support, even when they are grown up. If you don’t have much experience in touching a person this way, it’s good to intentionally imagine yourself and the person in these roles and think over why and how you will touch the person. If you can really see the other person as a good friend or your child, you will never touch him in an inappropriate way.


Being in control

Sometimes a person you serve will take the initiative to make physical contact and - intentionally or not - does this in a way which doesn’t feel good for you. What to do?

Roy has an intellectual disability. He is 50 years old, but emotionally he feels and acts like a child of 2 – 3. Roy like to hug his caregivers, especially when they  have been nice to him. Some caregivers do not like to be hugged so often and the team decided that Roy may only hug a caregiver once a day. 
On a particular moment, caregiver Clare said something nice to Roy and immediately he wanted to hug her. 
Claire: no Roy, I don’t want you to hug me now
Roy: oh, just once
Claire: no
Roy: just once, why not?
Claire: (looking for an excuse) my boyfriend will get jealous
Roy: don’t tell him

This went on for 2 or 3 minutes until Roy turned away and went to his room.


With gentle teaching we don’t want to push a person away from us and give him the feeling of being rejected. But of course we also don’t have to let a person touch us in a way which doesn’t feel good for us. That’s why we always should be guiding the contact.
In the example, Claire wasn’t in control. Roy caused her to feel uncomfortable by his request for a hug and he even made her find a silly excuse.


The first way of guiding is by being aware of what you feel on the moment when Roy asks for a hug and why you feel this way. If you see Roy as a 50 year old man who shouldn’t be hugging others, you don’t see him how he really he. His wish for being hugged fits perfectly with where is emotionally. From that perspective it’s quite normal that he wants to hug, and there is no reason to get upset because it is ‘inappropriate’.


But maybe the way he likes to hug doesn’t feel good for you. Here we come to the second and equal important reason for being in control. The caregiver should always be in control of how the physical contact goes.  And the best way of doing this, is by taking the initiative yourself. If Claire would have taken the initiative and give Roy a hug the moment she sees he wants it, the whole thing would be over in 10 seconds. Roy would be happy and it wouldn’t cost Claire the time and energy it has cost her now.


Sometimes a person can get erotic feelings or fantasies while being touched and try to act accordingly. This is a sign that the caregiver is losing, or has already lost, control over the contact. You should get back the control, without rejecting or domineering the person. You can do this by emphasizing more on eye contact or verbal contact and so decrease the focus on the physical element of the contact. Another way is by giving more energy in the contact or intentionally evoke another energy.


Victims of sexual abuse or physical violence

A large number of people (30 – 40 %)  have experiences of sexual abuse or other kinds of physical violence in their life. And since people with a disability are even more at risk of being abused, the  number of victims amongst them may be even higher. As caregivers we have to be aware of this.

Victims of abuse or violence have very negative, or even traumatic, memories on physical contact initiated by others. But it’s difficult recognize the signs of it. Some victims may be extremely afraid of being touched, while others just let it happen or may even provoke it themselves.


There are opposite visions on how to be with victims of sexual abuse. One vision says that we should never try to make physical contact, because this may trigger the trauma and activate the traumatic response. The other vision says that it’s good to very carefully make safe and warm physical contact, so the person can experience that this kind of contact is also possible and that it is possible to trust other people. It may also help the person to value his/her own body more.
In gentle teaching we choose for the second approach. In a very gentle way we try to teach the person that, when we reach out for him and  when we touch him, he can feel safe with us and unconditionally loved by us.


If you don’t feel comfortable touching others

Not everybody is physical and finds it easy to touch others, especially if they don’t have an intimate relationship with them. This can by ‘by nature’, or because they don’t have positive experiences in being touched themselves and they don’t feel the value of it.
But if you work with people with special needs, who have a need for warm physical contact, it’s important that you try to develop yourself in doing this. But don’t force yourself. Take your time. It is possible to train yourself in a safe way, so you may also learn to value this type of contact yourself.