Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | February 5, 2012


I recently came across a blog entry by Sean Carroll on Discover Magazine titled “I’m Too Smart To Understand Human Beings”, describing a practice at Mensa meetings where people put different colored stickers on their badges indicating whether they like to be hugged or not. The original post detailing the meeting and the system came from Jen McCreight’s Blog Hag blog, detailing her experience as a speaker at a Mensa meeting (very cool – you should read it).

The gist of the system is:

Green = Hug me!

Yellow = Ask me first, please

Red = Don’t touch me!

The discussion that came in the comments (ahh, comments sections on the internet, the place one should never stop to read unless one feels like being offended, hurt, and pissed off) condoned the folks at Mensa for “not being able to understand their fellow human beings” and claimed that hugs with strangers are completely inappropriate regardless of situation.

However, I must say I rather like the system. It removes ambiguity. There are lots of people in the world, and not nearly enough hugs. Ask anyone who’s stood on a corner with a “free hugs” sign whether they felt better after an afternoon of hugging. The answer is nearly always affirmative. Hugging releases endorphins and makes the world a better place, and why shouldn’t people who are often sorely lacking in hugs in their day-to-day lives be deprived of them in a situation where there are lots of other hug-deprived people looking for hugs?

Most people go around assuming that everyone is a “red”, when in fact there are “yellows” and “greens” in their lives too. So in fact, I think that the sticker system is just the opposite of “too smart to understand human beings” – I think it’s so smart that we understand that most people make an assumption about, and we want to challenge that assumption.

Whoever said that those of us with social “disabilities” can’t understand our fellow human beings? I think that is absolute crap. I’ve spent my entire life cataloguing every single interpersonal interaction that I’ve seen or been a part of, so that I could better understand how to interact with people. The stickers simply simplify that process. (Why did she just get mad at him for hugging her? Oh, she’s wearing a red sticker, she doesn’t like hugs.) There’s no guesswork involved.

Of course, it’s not just Mensa where people get together, feel a sense of community, and want to hug each other. I have spent a fair amount of time with the LGBT community, and there hugs are rampant. The assumption is that everyone is a “green”, and if you get startled by a single hug, then you’re labeled immediately as a “red” and often treated badly because of it.

I’m a yellow. I actually really like hugs sometimes, but only if you ask me first, and only in certain situations. I don’t like being surprised by a hug (ESPECIALLY not from behind) and it has to be on my terms. Surprise hugs often lead to major shut downs. I’ve always liked small spaces, and hugs can be incredibly comforting in a situation where there’s not a small space for me to be. And most importantly, I like to be able to refuse hugs if I’m overwhelmed or just don’t want a hug at that moment or from that person. I guess most of the time I’m a red “don’t touch me!” but for the times when I’m not, I like the idea of a yellow sticker “ask me first and please don’t be offended if I say no”. Ask me, and it removes the ambiguity. And a surprising amount of the time (maybe 1 in 5-8 inquiries) the answer is “yes, I’d love a hug”.

So where do you stand on hugs? I’ve always wondered how other members of the Autism community feel about hugging and being hugged. Are you a green? Yellow? Red? Is it situation dependent? What do you think of the sticker system? Are we “too smart to understand human beings”? Or as I like to think, are we smarter than normal human beings because the system paves the way for more positive human interactions that would otherwise be assumed un-wanted?


p.s. “health” update for anyone who cares… I’m still miserably sick. I’ve now lost 10 pounds (the rate of loss is slowing down, though!) and will hopefully manage to gain some of that weight back soon. I don’t even really have enough energy to be bored. Sleep, eat, sleep, eat, try to work, sleep. Being sick is sensory hell. It’s mental hell. I’ve had this post mostly written for weeks, and I’m curious about the hug issue. Especially since at the moment, I can’t decide whether I am in desperate need of a hug or whether I can’t deal with any physical human contact at all. *sigh*


  1. I hate hugs, they are really painful and invasive for me, in my country it’s normal to hug strangers and kiss people you know, I hate so much that I avoid meeting anyone.
    That is considered rude not to hug or to say no is something I can’t understand.
    Sorry that you are sick, you read your blog but lack the energy to comment most of the time.

  2. My biggest problem with hugs is knowing when they are appropriate. I never grew up with hugs, so when they are solicited I flinch involuntariily. People chuckle at my startle response. I soldier through.

    I don’t mind the hug as much as the surprise. An unexpected intimacy unnerves me, but so would offending someone. So, I’d like a yellow sticker please!

    In the LGBT community in my home town, hugs were also given freely. I learned that a hug was a default greeting so it was okay.

    I am sorry to hear that you are feeling so unwell. You described a deep level of illness aptly when you said you were too sick to be bored. The worst. I wish I had some wisdom or advice for you. I can say, I enjoyed your post. I admire your ability to reach out when your energy is so low. Hanh in there. 🙂

  3. I am not a member of the autism community, so maybe the question isn’t for me… Anyway, I am a definite red. Being hugged by a stranger or even an aunt or acquaintance is somewhere on a scale between mildly awkward to very invasive. I put up with hugs because it is an expression of friendliness (just like I put up with a dog licking my face although I don’t like it). However, I wish hugging wasn’t an accepted form of greeting people at all.

  4. Ps. I like the topics you take up, by the way:-)

  5. Another non-autie reply here:

    Apparently at Autreat they use the same red-yellow-green code for whether it’s ok to talk to someone or not. I think both these uses are good.

    I am a very huggy person, but I don’t surprise-hug anyone unless I’m hugging someone whose hug preferences I know very well, and I usually try to ask first, either verbally or simply by opening my arms and giving the other person the choice of whether or not to step into them for an embrace.

    I only ever object to getting hugs when I am extremely stressed– and that’s usually when I need them most, too– I’m just pickier about them then. As someone who is a “green” unless otherwise specified, I’ve had numerous frustrated conversations with an online friend who is “red unless otherwise specified” and believes everyone should be treated as such. I find her viewpoint troubling because there are times when I really need a hug and don’t know how to ask for one– it’s crucial for me to have people just offer sometimes, whereas to her hugs should be a de facto taboo unless specifically requested. I think colored badges/buttons would solve this nicely.

    By the way, since you mentioned the hug issue in your last post, I wanted to make an offer: I have a bit of training in therapeutic touch methods (massage, guided movement techniques like Alexander, etc). If you like, I’d be happy to do some experimentation with you and try and see if we can find a “you-friendly” version of hugging or other physical comfort. If you can tell me what aspects of touch are problematic for you, I think we can probably find a way to work around them.

  6. Hey there!
    “I’m a yellow. I actually really like hugs sometimes, but only if you ask me first, and only in certain situations. I don’t like being surprised by a hug (ESPECIALLY not from behind) and it has to be on my terms. ”
    That, and the rest of that paragraph, is just what I am.
    I love hugs, but there’s a lot of people I would never want to hug me and situations is which I would never want to be hugged.
    Stickers seem a great idea!

  7. I’m a definite yellow. I love hugging my friends who like being hugged, and we greet each other in this fashion, but I don’t like being hugged by strangers, especially by surprise, it upsets me.

  8. Yellow for hugs! I need to know first.

    Also, have you seen the system at Autreat yet? It’s not for hugs, but for communication in general:
    Red- Don’t talk to me unless it’s an actual, life or death emergency
    Yellow- I only want to talk with people I know Right now.
    Green- I have a hard time initiating conversations, please include me if you’d like.
    None- I don’t mind talking to people right now, But I don’t need extra help to initiate conversation.

    They use changable cards, too, so if your preferences change during the day you can change it to what is appropriate. I;ve seen this get adopted elsewhere too.

  9. Until it was brought up here, I hadn’t heard about the Autreat system (or Autreat – it sounds both interesting and terrifying…) I’m usually a green by those standards – I can’t initiate conversation but am happy to be included when I can.

    Funny, it seems that lots of us are “yellows” for hugs. Time to start a poll or something. (Of course, I’m a scientist. I would have to make sure it was widely distributed, and had equal numbers of Autie and NT subjects, and even then it probably wouldn’t give valid data since it was distributed through the internet and not controlled, so while I could look at trends, I wouldn’t be able to gather any statistically significant data that meant anything. *sigh*)

  10. I’m a hesitant yellow… I know, not very descriptive. If you’re my kids, or husband, then I like hugs, but don’t have any huge need like most people do for them. If you’re an acquaintance or family member I will do hugs if asked to, but I’d rather not. I just don’t really see the point. I guess, it doesn’t release endorphins for me.

  11. I am not autistic, but my son is. And he is clearly what would some would call a sensory seeker- hugs and snuggles all the time with those he knows and loves. Granted, he is only three, but-as a neurotypical mom- I’m awfully glad he does. Ironically, both my father and I are not overly enthusiastic huggers. It’s a little awkward for me unless I’m really close to someone or it’s my kids. I have other quirks, however, and Am pretty sure my son’s ASD comes naturally. Lol. But sudden hugging throws me. I need to see it coming! So, I think the pins are a great idea for their meetings. I suspect Mensa would likely have a higher percetage of people with SPD anyway…

  12. […] Last time I wrote about hugs, I discussed the “red/yellow/green” sticker system at Mensa meetings. Green means “hug me!” while red means “don’t touch me!”. Yellow is the happy medium of “ask me first”. (And I learned that Autreat has a similar system) I said I was a yellow. But I don’t know if that’s quite accurate. More likely, I’m a yellow with a red dot in the middle. I don’t mind hugs, on occasion, but please, please, ask me first, and understand that I’m very likely going to turn you down. And group hugs? Please please PLEASE don’t make me join. They put my arms at odd angles, and there’s different pressure from different people on all sides, and it’s not comforting in the least. Usually it just feels like I’m going to explode, and that’s really not a fun feeling. Group hugs send me curled up into a ball under the table in the corner, rocking back and forth, face in my knees, trying to get rid of all the awful feelings. Please don’t ever make me group hug. If I’m feeling like my brain and body can handle it, I might join in, but it 100% has to be on my terms. […]

  13. I love this post (and your blog, from the handful of posts I’ve read so far). Your color-coding sounds like a great idea.

    I’m on the spectrum, and I’d say I’m a green around my immediate family and closest friends (funny, my best friend is NT and pretty much a solid red). I love hugs as long as they last at least a few seconds and don’t involve any back “patting”. I hate those quick one-armed hugs that seem more like an excuse to hit someone on the back than show them affection. Nice hugs from people I love make me feel happy, safe, and calm. I’m a big cuddler, even though I have a lot of sensory issues. 🙂

    I’m a yellow around more distant relatives (aunts, cousins, etc.), acquaintances, and strangers. As long as I see it coming, I can handle it but don’t enjoy it.

    I’m a red in big social gatherings (church would probably be a good example). I’m stressed out from the general environment, the last thing I want is a group of strangers (even if I have met them a few times before) getting in my personal space.

    • Thanks for sharing this! I definitely relate to the “people-dependent/context-dependent” color scheme. Thanks for your comment!

  14. Most of the time I am a yellow but a green for one or two people but at a certain level of overload I become a red.

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