Recently I was thinking about hugging and remembering what physical affection was like at the ASD school where I interned last summer.
I remember the last day I was there I asked my favorite kid, R.D., if I could hug him. He said yes, but when I put my arms around him he didn't put his arms around me. I remember that this was something I did at his age, and it was because I saw hugs as an opportunity to get my whole body squeezed tightly. But I also wonder if, given the culture of the school, R.D. felt that he had the right to say he didn't want to hug.
There was a lot of hugging going on. Some kids would ask for tickling or hugging as their reward for doing work. There was also a lot of teachers hugging, tickling, and grabbing kids without being asked--and the way I feel about this is complicated. I mean, it's inarguable that people with sensory issues need to learn to put up with annoying and borderline painful sensations at least some of the time. And I also think it's the case that some people who don't like physical contact will come to like it better if they put up with it for a while. But...I mean, I already feel kind of gross writing those sentences, and it makes me nervous to think of anyone taking that idea and running with it--the idea that forcing physical affection on ASD kids is good for them.
There was a boy named J.S. in R.D.'s class, who I remember as being sort of prim and serious. He would occasionally become smiley about something he really liked, such as his baby sister, but usually he looked pretty dour and complained about everything. The teachers would always grab, chase, and tickle J.S. and I'm not sure how I feel about that. J.S. would giggle so I think maybe he was learning that these things can be fun. But he never looked like he was luxuriating in being grabbed or tickled, like kids who had asked for it; his smile was always kind of wincing, his body was always stiff.
J.S. embodies how conflicted I feel about the benefits and drawbacks of being aggressively physically affectionate with ASD kids. But there was a third kind of affection at that school, and that was affection that was not supposed to happen. Twice, I remember R.D., in some sort of squeaky, wordy paroxysm, throwing an arm around me and squeezing me, to which he was told, "Keep your hands to yourself" or "Don't be silly." I've also mentioned a few times when kids would take the initiative in making a joke or game with an authority figure they liked, and be reprimanded for misbehavior (for example, turning off the lights in a room). This isn't ambiguous to me at all, it was a flat-out wrong way to do things. If R.D. wasn't allowed to impulsively hug someone else, then his teachers shouldn't be allowed to do that to him. "Can you be flexible?" was a constant question when kids who'd been expecting one thing had to accept a different result, and the only right answer was "Yes." But the teachers didn't show flexibility when a kid had an idea for how to do something, even something as small as an affectionate interaction.
There's a reason this makes me very upset, and the reason is abuse. I think I've linked multiple times to Dave Hingsburger's post The Good Girl, about a teenager with Down Syndrome who explained that if anyone abused her, she'd "understand" and wouldn't tell anyone because she wouldn't want her abuser to get in trouble. I think the attitudes at R.D. and J.S.'s school are perfectly suited to screwing up kids just that way.
I felt gross saying that sometimes having to put up with uncomfortable physical affection can be good for a kid. But at least I felt gross, at least I'm speaking from my experience as an ASD person, and at least I think it's an incredibly complex and difficult issue. The teachers at the school did not seem to think this was a complex issue, which is horribly dangerous. It makes me very nervous to think of J.S. getting older and eventually ceasing to complain about discomfort. It makes me nervous to think how R.D. will handle friendships and relationships as an adult, when he's been taught to accept contact he doesn't like and discouraged from initiating the kind of contact he does like.
But the prospect of unequal relationships seems almost jolly when compared to the possibility that one of these kids could be abused by an adult. Being trained to accept physical contact that you don't like, and being discouraged from complaining, being "inflexible," and expressing unpopular opinions, are things that could set up a child to not report being abused.
The connotations of this are horrible. They are connotations that exist in many of the attitudes at that school. Stimming is bad because it looks weird and can lead to discrimination--stimming is the enemy, not discrimination. Special interests are bad because they aren't considered normal--special interests are the enemy, not illogical constructions of what is normal. And, somehow, people who could hurt these kids are not as big an enemy as the kids themselves; teaching them power and independence is not worth it if it would mean letting them say, "I don't want a hug right now."