06 June, 2010

Hugging problems

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."


  1. To try and understand more fully, I had to put this into a frame that is regularly acknowledged as inappropriate touching.

    You don't hug a woman, even one you know, if she doesn't want you to or if she doesn't like it. We'd consider touching like that to be a form of abuse if it continued, quite clearly a form of abuse.

    It should be seen as such if it is happening to a child, especially a child for whom the contact is upsetting or causes them pain. It's hard enough to learn how to communicate without mixed signals, the adult has the responsibility there to act in a way that respects a child's best interests.

    I can't believe they don't even allow the scenario where the kids hug back! They don't even get to be the active party in instigating an act that is supposed to relay affection, except that they aren't allowed to do that. It's not like they're receptacles of other people's good will! Part of growing up is teaching children how to set boundaries that they are comfortable with! Not stomping over those bounds!

    You wouldn't see this at a school for children without ASD, in fact that amount of physical contact against the wishes of the child could get someone fired. This is... such a load of shit for them. Not fair!

  2. I don't want to imply that they were never allowed to hug because I know they sometimes were. For example this one boy G. was really sweet and would want to hug various school employees when he walked around the school. This was seen as cute. I don't know if the difference is that G.'s hugging had a less manic flavor than R.D.'s, or because G. was nonverbal and therefore not held to the same standard as R.D. in terms of acting normal, or because the teachers in G.'s class were more low-key.

    (I was mostly in R.D.'s class but I was in G.'s class for a day at the beginning of my internship, and the lead instructor was about to leave and go to another school. He basically told me that being enthusiastic and influencing the kid to be enthusiastic too was a lot more important than making sure the kid was sitting when you told them to sit and standing when you told them to stand. He implied that's one of the reasons he was leaving.)

    The head of the school told me, "R.D.'s an interesting kid, he always likes to have things his way and tries to control everything." I think that a lot of the attitudes she and the teachers had toward R.D. were based in never letting him have his way. Which sounds good in theory but...R.D. was seven years old! You just basically described a seven-year-old. I feel like especially in terms of R.D. they just medicalized/demonized stuff that was quite innocent and would have been regarded completely differently in a child without an ASD diagnosis.

  3. I highly prefer it if people ask me, whether through actually asking or just outstretching their arms (or whatever), a concept people in my family still don't seem to be able to grasp.

    I pull away from spontaneous hugs because they're physically painful.

    I pull away from any spontaneous physical touch, actually, because it is painful if I don't know about it in advance. I don't even like it when someone puts their hand on my shoulder.

    I can be very physically affectionate as long as I am asked and I approve of it. But no matter how many times I tell people this they still just can't grasp it so they get nothing from me.

    I also have to actually like the person. Getting a hug from someone you don't like makes you grimace.

  4. I agree. Not all seven year olds but it's as common as any other behaviour. Some are quite happy to cruise along and lead a rich internal life while being told to do things. Others are more forthright. That's a good thing! A kid who is forthright can look after themselves, you don't want to stamp it out... Just nourish it with some external perspectives.

    Poor RD, kids need to get to do what they want some of the time, otherwise what's the point of being alive? It'd be endless drudgery.

  5. When I was a child, I spent parts of my day in a mainstream elementary school classroom and parts in a special ed. room. I was very decidedly a kid who Did Not Like To Be Touched, except in rare cases when I was feeling unusually mellow and unusually fond of another person. Even then, I had to be the one initiating contact.

    Nonetheless, people would grab, tickle, drag, hug, and push me without my permission all. the. time. Both special ed. aides and mainstream teachers, and if the other children did the same, it would be ignored or even encouraged. I think some of it had to do with a perceived need to teach me to "react normally" to "normal" physical contact, but I also think some of it had to do with our society's attitude towards children in general. Whether a kid is autistic or not, it seems to be considered acceptable to foist completely unwanted physical contact on pre-adolescent humans in a way that would be widely recognized as out of line if they were teenagers or adults. I don't mean anything that would be considered abusive, even-- just unwanted hugs, unwanted kisses or hair-ruffling, unwanted grabbing of the arm and pulling in the desired direction-- but those things are pretty uncomfortable when you're seven. Even if you're an NT seven-year-old, I'd guess.

    I do think that non-NT kids are more often discouraged from asserting their own preferences regarding when and how to be touched, though.

    Oh, gosh, I'm sorry if this is getting lengthy. I just discovered your blog today, and I've been enjoying it.

  6. This post reminded me how easy it is to teach a child to add "normalizing programs." The cases you describe sound exrtreme, but even in normal situations, children are encouraged to adapt reacations that are not their own. I have SPD and I'm hyposensitive to most forms of touch, which means hugging and tickling are not painful so much as awakard and not desired. Early in my childhood, I thought my self to laugh when someone tickled me and observed the spots that cuased the most laughter. For me the point of the "game" was to create laughter. It wasn't until adolesence that I realized other people were laughing becuase it was a natural reaction and not becuase they told themselves to do so.