Understanding the Complexities of Hugging Sensitivity in Autistic Children
Table of Contents:
- Autism and Personal Space
- Managing Excessive Hugging (+ Alternatives)
- Establishing Boundaries
Children are often seen as open books, expressing their emotions candidly. However, when we delve into the intricate world of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these excpressions can manifest differently, especially regarding physical touch, like hugging.
Some autistic children may not be able to easily interpret the physical boundaries commonly understood and respected by neurotypical individuals. The line between too close and just right can be blurry.
This doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage; often, they might process social interactions differently. For instance, while a neurotypical child might express joy or affection by using words, an autistic child might resort to what they know best: physical touch. And that’s where the subject of hugging comes in.
Autism and Personal Space
When you observe a child on the autism spectrum engaging in excessive hugging, it might leave you with several questions. Why is this behaviour more common among some autistic children than others? Is there a particular reason they might seek out or avoid physical touch? Let’s dive deeper into understanding these complexities.
- The Spectrum of Sensory Responses
One key aspect of Autism is the sensory sensitivities many autistic children experience. Some might be hyper-sensitive (overly sensitive) to sensory inputs, while others might be hypo-sensitive (under-sensitive).
So, for a child on the autism spectrum, hugging can be a complex experience. A simple embrace might feel overwhelming or even painful if they’re hypersensitive to touch. On the other hand, hypersensitive people might crave the deep pressure sensation that comes from a firm hug, leading to what many might perceive as “excessive” hugging.
- Hugging as a Form of Stimming
Some children might flap their hands, while others might seek physical interactions like hugging. Hugging can be a way to self-soothe or regulate overwhelming emotions and anxiety for these children.
- Navigating Social Interactions
Social interactions can be a challenge for many diagnosed with autism. Recognising social cues isn’t always intuitive. An autistic child might not always pick up on the unspoken social rules about when and how it’s appropriate to hug others. While neurotypical children might instinctively understand these cues, an autistic child might avoid or engage in hugging more than their peers.
Managing Excessive Hugging (& Alternatives to Hugging)
Understanding and managing excessive hugging in children with autism requires a blend of patience, education, and alternative solutions. It’s essential to approach the situation without discouraging the child but gently guiding them towards understanding personal boundaries.
Create a ‘Hug Code’: Establish a visual or verbal cue with your child. For instance, they can show a thumbs-up if they want to hug. This allows the child to express their need to hug, and you can decide if it’s appropriate.
Introduce Alternative Comfort Objects: Provide objects like stress balls, sensory toys, or even soft plush toys that the child can squeeze when they feel the urge to hug. This can offer a similar sensation without involving another person.
Use a Timer: If your child seeks the comfort of long hugs, introduce a timer system. This allows them to experience the hug, but for a duration that you both find acceptable. Gradually reduce the time to help them adapt.
Safe Space Strategy: Designate a safe space in the home where your child can retreat when they feel overwhelmed or need comfort. This place can be equipped with their favourite comforting items.
Open Communication: Initiate a dialogue with your child. Ask them what they feel when they want to hug and explain the concept of personal space to them.
Deep Pressure Therapy: Consider therapies that use pressure to calm and soothe, such as weighted blankets or vests. This can provide the same reassuring sensation of a hug.
Social Stories: Create or find social stories that explain when hugging is appropriate. Reading these regularly can help them internalise the concept.
Practise Alternative Greetings: Teach the child other ways to greet or show affection, like a high-five, wave, or even a friendly nod.
Establishing Healthy Boundaries and Social Development
Healthy boundaries are crucial for everyone, but for autistic children , understanding these boundaries can be incredibly challenging. Regular discussions about personal space and using tools like social stories or role-playing can make these abstract concepts more concrete.
Teachers, therapists, and carers can play a pivotal role in reinforcing these lessons, ensuring that children on the spectrum have consistent guidance across all environments.
Actionable Steps and Advice
Use Social Stories: Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation or activity, including specific information about what to expect and why. For instance, create a story about why people need personal space and when giving hugs is appropriate.
Role-Playing: Engage in role-playing exercises where you and your child act out various social situations. This practice provides a safe environment to learn and understand social cues related to hugging and personal boundaries.
Visual Aids: Use charts or images that indicate personal space. For instance, a circle around a cartoon character can represent their personal space, helping the child visualise the concept.
Discuss Feelings: Regularly talk with your child about feelings – both theirs and others. Ask questions like, “How do you think John felt when you hugged him without asking?” This helps them develop empathy and a deeper understanding of social interactions.
Group Therapy or Social Skills Classes: Enrolling your child in group or social skills classes can be beneficial. These sessions are often led by professionals trained in helping children with autism navigate social situations.
Feedback System: After social interactions, discuss with your child what went well and what could be improved. This debriefing helps them recognise their progress and areas for development.
Educate Peers: Sometimes, educating peers and their parents about your child’s tendency for excessive hugging is beneficial. This can lead to a more understanding environment where peers can also play a role in reinforcing boundaries.
Positive Reinforcement: Celebrate moments when your child respects boundaries.
Understanding the complexities around hugging and autism isn’t straightforward. Every child on the spectrum is unique, and their relationship with physical touch will be equally individual. Whether a child seeks the solace of a hug or shies away from it, understanding their unique needs and perspectives is crucial. Through empathy, awareness, and tailored interventions, we can help them navigate their world, ensuring they feel loved, understood, and valued. Let’s champion a world where every autistic child feels understood and accepted.
What to do if your child is feeling hug deprived?
Deprivation is a powerful term. It hints at a void, an emptiness, a yearning. For children feeling hug-deprived, the world may seem colder. The key? Shower them with affection in ways they’re comfortable with. It could be a pat on the back, gentle pressure from a weighted blanket, or simply spending quality time together. After all, love isn’t just in our embraces; it’s in our every gesture, every word, every shared moment.
Why children with autism may not like being hugged?
On the flip side, not every child on the spectrum appreciates receiving hugs. Some children diagnosed with autism may feel overwhelmed by the sensory input from tight or prolonged physical contact. They might interpret the touch as a form of stimming or even a source of anxiety.
The unpredictability of when they might be hugged can be unsettling for others. They prefer routines and knowing what to expect, and an unexpected hug disrupts that sense of order they cherish.
Do autistic people touch a lot?
Yes, some autistic individuals use touch as a form of stimming or to seek sensory input. However, it varies from person to person. Some autistic people seek out touch, while others might be more sensitive. Touch can be a form of stimming for some.
Do autistic people cling to people?
Some might, especially if they seek security or sensory comfort. But it’s not universal for everyone with autism.
Do autistic people like kisses?
It depends on the individual. While some might enjoy the sensation and the affection, others may find it overwhelming or unpleasant.
Do autistic people get overly attached to people?
It’s common for those diagnosed with autism to form deep connections or attachments to specific individuals, offering them comfort and understanding.
However, like any other group, autistic individuals have varied personal attachments. Some might become particularly attached, while others might be more independent.
Why is my child overly affectionate with strangers?
Some children with autism might not recognise social boundaries as others do. It’s essential to guide them in understanding appropriate social interactions.
About the Author: Ewa Bukowska
Ewa is an education practitioner focusing on technology adoption to support the daily lives and education of neurodiverse children and young people.
Ewa has worked in different settings on the verge of education and technology and is passionate about creating accessible and inclusive learning environments.
Ewa is also a SEND Programme Manager at Ignite Hubs, a UK-based charity, where she develops programming resources and offerings for children and young people with Additional Learning Needs.
Ewa’s passion for education was sparked by her older sister in their teenage years who encouraged her to tutor children in their neighbourhood. She is also a younger sister to a brother with Down Syndrome.