Blog: Touch by Lesley Howard

31 July 2023

Sketch by Ella McKenzie
Sketch by Ella McKenzie

When I was first asked to be involved in the R&D for a new take on We Touch, We Play, We Dance by Second Hand Dance Company, I was super excited at the opportunity to be in the company of dancers, with Rosie & Keir being so welcoming. I closed the zoom tab and quickly thought, me in a piece about touch? – well you’ve got to fake it, till you make it and I’m a pretty experienced masker.

Touch is a concept until recently I avoided, the way oil avoids water, commonly you’d automatically assume that I don’t like to be touched, and your go to adaptation is to just avoid me, like I am the water. Truthfully this really sucks and makes me feel different when I’ve been masking so much to belong. It’s from this assumption that has made touch difficult for myself, often watching others from the side-lines. You’ve made that assumption so it must be true I must not like this.

My mum - side note she is my biggest advocate & support - has never seemed to understand how I am a contemporary dancer when I am Autistic and Dyspraxic. I totally see where she is coming from the spontaneity of contemporary, the complexity of movement and the contact are pretty out of character for me. Others have asked if I have friends or congratulated me on having a career (you know “poor Autistic” me) But when the movement starts, I am suddenly transported to a world that I understand. A world where those around me also understand me - there is no masking, confusing or worry just pure movement joy.

Since beginning, We Touch, We Play, We Dance my outlook on touch has changed, I am beginning to understand it’s not that I dislike being touched it’s that I don’t always know how to accept or return it. There is also something about the uncertainty of touch, where is the touch, what is the pressure, what is the feeling - this one is particularly hard as reading feelings doesn’t naturally fall into my skill set, you could literally be crying and I ask if you’re okay, if your response is yes then I’ll take that as a yes.

Throughout the rehearsals with the dancers, care has been at the centre. What are our needs, or quirks and how can we best piece them together. This care has allowed me to ease out of my comfort zone beyond boundaries and dare I say limitations (I know I know I’m not meant to say I have limitations, but it’s simply not true, there are just somethings as an Autistic I cannot do and I’m totally okay with that, most of the time).

In early development of this version, we worked closely with a class, all of which were Autistic and we had been advised they won’t respond or like being touched. Before the sharing began, we quickly realised this ‘advice’ was an assumption as a little girl quickly wrapped her arms around me. By the end of the sharing the whole class were involved sharing this joyous moment or touch, play & dance. I think this is again down to the care and approach of the work. It’s a new way of introducing contact, through repetition, allowing us to process what is going to happen, and kindness taking the queues from the individuals without force, touch is achieved.

Throughout this process I have learned I am no longer the assumption of the “water and oil”, whilst the concept of touch is still confusing, example: we did a group massage warm up where we each stood in the middle of a circle and the circle massaged you at the same time, I actually really enjoyed this although it did look like I was in serve pain, I haven’t quite found the right facial expression for touch. It is becoming easier and more interesting to me each time.

My top tips for touch from an Autistic perspective are:

  • Ask before if okay and revisit this conversation throughout. 
  • Explain the whole exercise, we like to be prepared for the layers that are coming.
  • Choice, let us pick who we are comfortable with first, there are people’s auras we naturally gravitate to as ‘safe people’.
  • Be patient & kind - if you’re feeling anxious about touch, and I’m mirroring your persona, I’m going to be mega anxious.