To Hug Or Not To Hug: Navigating ASD Social Interactions
August 15, 2018
By: Ethan Hirschberg
Ethan Hirschberg is a teenager who blogs about his autism. In this post, Ethan responds to Michelle, one of his readers who previously asked his opinion on being affectionate. This post was originally posted on his website, The Journey Through Autism.
“Ethan, I have a question for you. I have two kids with High Functioning Autism and as their mother, it is extremely hard for me to know when and how to show my physical affection for them! My oldest child loves hugs, however, my younger one hates any type of physical contact. Is it okay to give people with Autism hugs? – Michelle.”
Thank you for your question, Michelle! As Dr. Stephen Shore, EdD (special education professor, author, and Autism self-advocate) famously said, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” Simply put, everyone is different! Since the Autism spectrum is so diverse, you can’t say that everyone with Autism does or does not like hugs. However, I have recently noticed that there isn’t much of a “gray area” when it comes to Autism and physical affection; it’s either one way or the other! Nevertheless, I am going to share some advice as well as my personal experiences regarding this topic in hopes that it will help you and your family!
Ever since I was a toddler, I have always shown my physical affection for others. When I show my physical affection, it’s usually due to one of two things. First, I may want to show that I care for someone. Second, I could be anxious or overstimulated and need to squeeze something (or in this case, someone).
With really good friends and family, hugging is sort of my go-to action. This doesn’t mean that I only hug; I still give high-fives, handshakes, and fist bumps! Sometimes it is difficult for me to communicate that I want a hug. When I hug someone, not only is it a socially acceptable way to greet someone, but it makes me feel good. The feeling is kind of hard to explain… all I can say is that I love it! (Hint: if I know you, don’t be afraid to give me a hug)! The only downside to this (besides not knowing exactly how to communicate my feelings) is that hugging can sometimes become socially awkward. I don’t think of hugging as socially awkward, however, I have seen some of my peers be turned off when I go in for a hug. It is sometimes awkward for me because with some of my friends, I do not know if they like hugs or not (and I don’t know how to find out). I try my absolute hardest not to upset anyone, but it’s a normal thing for me to hug a friend! It’s even better when they initiate the hug as well!
I might also hug someone when I am anxious, upset, hyper, stressed, overstimulated, etc. I will only hug my family when this happens though. I only hug immediate family members because when I am feeling any of these emotions, my hugs tend to be much harder and more like tough squeezes. In other words, definitely not socially acceptable to do with a friend from school! These types of hugs calm me down, which my parents learned early on was (and still is) a great tool to use. Talk about a free version of weighted blankets! The one disadvantage to this is that as a bigger guy, I could actually hurt somebody if I squeeze too hard. My dad is pretty much the only person that won’t break in half when I hug him as tightly as I do! So, I have had to learn how to control the tightness of my squeezes with other people besides my father during these times.
When I am extremely angry or frustrated, the situation tends to change. During these times, I actually dislike hugs… it’s very confusing! When I am actively mad, giving and getting affection is not on the top of my priorities list (I usually just want to be alone). However, once I am calmed down, hug away!
If someone with Autism doesn’t like hugs, there are lots of other ways to show love and affection as well; find out what works the best! This may be a massage, holding hands, playing with their hair, sitting together and watching television, etc. If the individual with Autism cannot verbalize or explain their likes and dislikes, you may need to find out what works the best. The physical hug might not even be the problem, it may be the feeling of someone’s hair on a cheek or the smell of body odor! All I can say is to be prepared for a trial and error period!
With everything that I have experienced, witnessed, and learned, I would say that the best thing to do is to simply ask what the specific person is comfortable with regarding physical affection and their overall personal space. There is absolutely no harm in asking and I actually appreciate people who confirm with me if I want a hug or not.
If you have any questions about any topic, please feel free to email or direct message me on any of my Autism blog social media accounts. I love answering viewers’ questions and it’s always a plus if I can create new content with it as well!
Ethan Hirschberg is 17 years old, and has been diagnosed with High Functioning Autism since he was two years old. Hirschberg currently lives with his parents, his brother, and his two dogs – and they all share a very close bond. Besides writing and blogging, Hirschberg enjoys hanging with family and friends, practicing martial arts, cooking, and running his own business. Currently, he plans on attending college and become a special education attorney or a behavior analyst (BCBA). You can check out his website, which is entitled The Journey Through Autism.