Hugs…some Aspie/autistic people can’t stand them at all. Others can only stand them if they’re firm (not light), while a few can only stand them if they’re light (not firm). Some people on the spectrum will only hug if they’re prepared for it, possibly even only after being asked beforehand; others are more flexible.
Some are choosier about who they accept hugs from than others. (I’m not implying that any of these preferences is any better or worse than the others, nor am I advocating one approach over another; what works for that person is the best approach for them, and I believe we all have a right to engage in what’s comfortable for us and to abstain from anything that isn’t.)
My take on the subject of hugs is: I like them. I’m actually kind of a sucker for pleasant touch and human connection with people I’m close to. I feel warm and fuzzy inside when I’m hugged. It means they cared enough to think of hugging me, and then took the time and effort to carry out that thought. I feel safe and secure. I feel close and connected. I feel loved and treasured. I feel valued and real. I feel recognized and acknowledged. I feel human.
A hug means someone reached out to me, reached for me. Reached for me. Someone wanted to be close to me. Someone wanted me to be close to them. Someone loves me, and they love me enough to want to tell me that.
I don’t necessarily need anyone to ask me before hugging me. Unless I get weird, uncomfortable, cold, suspicious, alarming, or threatening vibes from someone, I will generally let them hug me. Asking me first is ideal, now that I’ve had a chance to give it some thought, but I understand and have accepted that few people consider doing that. (Before I realized I was an Aspie, I never considered that, either.)
But even with a gesture so loving and innocent, and even though I love it as much as I do, hugs do come with some “fine print”.
The first hurdle involves the qualities of the other person. I usually have to either know the person well enough to be in my personal inner circle, or I have to otherwise feel comfortable with them. This comfort occurs on a level that can be described in various ways: a positive or compatible energy or vibration (getting “good vibes”), a sixth sense or psychic connection, a complete sense of harmlessness, safety, and peace, and a complete absence of ulterior motive, hidden agenda, any kind of threat, or other creepy sensation. This can’t be faked; the trust/comfort is either there or it’s not. My gut feelings don’t betray me. My gut makes up its mind pretty quickly, and I listen to what it’s telling me.
The second hurdle involves me. If I feel physically ill, such as nauseated, congested, faint, or shaky, I’m probably not going to feel like being hugged. If I’m mentally engaged in something, especially something requiring deep concentration or intense focus, that isn’t the time for hugs, either.
If the situation involves both mental engagement and physical coordination, such as driving or working on something at my computer, that’s not a good time, either. This is especially true during activities that also induce stress or anxiety, especially if that stress or anxiety is affected by my being able to stay physically steady/coordinated or mentally competent/focused.
The third hurdle involves my preferences, which can be changeable. This is the trickiest part, because these do change from time to time; what worked a few hours ago may not work now.
Most of the time, I like to be hugged with medium firmness, although at other times, I need them to be lighter or firmer than that default baseline. Occasionally, the other person can also rub my back at the same time, but this must usually be slow and with tenderness. (Like other people (I imagine), I can feel a person’s tender emotion through the way they touch me, which adds to the positive experience of being hugged.)
At other times, though, I need the person’s hands to be still, and their arms to remain around me gently. I don’t like to feel like they’re hanging on (or hanging off) of me.
I’m also never a fan of skin-to-skin contact except for massage therapy, and even that can be tricky. I like massage therapy from time to time. I can handle a slow, firm, broad-based palm-contact stroke up my arm. I can handle a medium-speed, rhythmic, firmer-pressure thumbpad-contact on the soles of my feet or the palms of my hands.
I love a gentle stroke through my hair. But please, don’t pull or snag my hair. Please, don’t go too fast or too hard. Please, don’t touch my face at all.
Please, don’t use your fingertips or allow your fingernails to dig into my skin, even just a little bit.
Please, massage me with love in your heart and your mind on what you’re doing, without preoccupation or any hostility (even if that hostility isn’t directed at me, it will come through your movements and unwelcomingly invade my body and spirit).
Please, lighten the pressure as you approach the ends of the muscle, where it forms a tendon and attaches to bone. My bones are extremely sensitive. Static pressure (where you gently squeeze a muscle with moderate firmness, which works great on the shoulders, for example) is excellent, so long as the pressure isn’t too hard.
And please, for my session, just omit altogether the “nerve stroke” (known in massage therapy, which is the feather-light return stroke in which the goal is to maintain contact or avoid breaking contact with the massage client’s body); as light as the massage therapist thinks it may be, it’s too intense for me, and I’ve never liked it. When I had eczema, I couldn’t handle a nerve stroke at all over the affected area; it made my eczema itch for a long time afterward.
And heavens, please don’t use too much oil; I can tolerate just enough for your hand to glide medium-firmly across my skin, but that’s it. I can’t stand feeling gooey or slathered.
I do like to cuddle, also. Cuddling, to me, means spending time in prolonged physical contact, fully clothed, with zero sexual activity/agenda. I love to cuddle, but I do so with a very short list of treasured people: my partner, my parents, and another dear friend. That’s it. Gender doesn’t matter; my parents are a heterosexual couple, my partner is male, and my other close friend is a female.
Whether it’s a hug or a massage, or even cuddling, I can’t stand being jostled or shaken, even lightly or mildly. The only exception to that is at the very beginning of a massage, when I’m laying face-down, still completely covered by the top sheet (which must be flannel, fleece, or jersey sheets (AKA T-shirt material) and never percale!), sometimes the massage therapist begins a massage with some light and gentle rocking, particularly if this is sustained for about half a minute. This gets my body and nervous system all synchronized, like rocking or swinging gently.
I know all of that “fine print” and the “do”s and “don’t”s sound picky. If you’re thinking to yourself, “holy cow, if it’s that tough to hug her, why would anyone bother?”, I wouldn’t necessarily blame you. But some of this is relatively common sense and understandable, and really not as complex as it may look in print. And those who think a bit deeper on the subject will realize that they probably have some preferences, too; they just may not realize them or speak up about them.
My personal opinion is just that–what works for me personally. Every Aspie/autistic person is going to have his or her own preferences, and not only is that to be expected, that’s also completely OK.
What’s not OK is to try to force an Aspie to give/receive physical contact, when they’ve indicated (verbally or by body language) that they don’t want it. To continue to push one’s physical touch on another after the would-be recipient has declined or expressed a preference not to is actually assault. I’m not an attorney, so I don’t know the details, but I imagine–and regardless, I personally believe, ethically–that this is true even for parent-to-child contact (disciplinary actions for purposes of restraint or to move a child in a particular direction aside). But if the person doesn’t want a hug or other affection at that time, it’s wrong and harmful to try to force it.
Touch must be consensual, so it is indeed probably a good idea to ask if you’re not sure. For me, this is particularly true when I’m going through a tough time, in emotional pain. During these times, touch can sometimes be overwhelming, or maybe it could be exactly what I needed and very therapeutic. My closest people usually don’t have to ask, because they instinctively know what my answer will be, and they know how to hug me or cuddle with me just right.
But yes, a hug can mean the absolute world to me and brighten my entire day. So yes, keep hugging me. Keep showing me you care. Keep showing me that I’m important to you. I crave the closeness and the connection. 🙂