Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | September 11, 2012

What hugs mean to one autistic person

I’m going through a really rough time right now, because the kitty I grew up with died unexpectedly of sudden liver/kidney failure last Friday. He hadn’t been sick before, an there was no warning. I’m really really missing him. There. I wrote it. It’s always harder to see it in writing. I loved him, he loved me, and he was the only reason I would ever want to go home. I will write a tribute post to him at some point when I can do so without feeling a giant gaping hole in my gut every time I think about him. My mother called him her “Asperger’s Cat” and would make comments about how he and I were so very much alike in these aspects. That’s the closest she’s ever come to telling me about my diagnosis. But that’s not the point of this post. A good family friend who had been battling a particularly fatal form of cancer died not 3 hours later. Friday was pretty darn awful. But that’s not the point of this post either. This post has actually been mostly written for a while, ever since an entertaining conversation in the comments section of one of Ariane’s posts (a fantastic post titled “Want to know about Autism? Ask an Autistic”) over at Emma’s Hope Book. But the events of last Friday have led to a number of people wanting to give me spontaneous hugs, and this is universally not a helpful thing for me right now. Here’s why.

I consider myself a huggy person. And by that, I mean, I occasionally crave hugs. I don’t like them when they’re unsolicited. I don’t like them when they’re unannounced. I don’t like them from people I don’t know. I don’t like them unless I’m in need of a hug. And sometimes I’m even able to be the initiator of a hug, if it is a friend who asks of me something I would ask of them when necessary: “I need a hug”. And that makes me huggy. I don’t recoil instinctively at the idea of hugging someone, I just don’t like them very often.

For me, a hug is a thing of comfort, not a thing of affection. A hug can be comforting without being sexual. A hug can be someone helping to control my out of whack sensory system with calming deep pressure. A hug can be someone reminding me that I am not alone. A hug can be something I need in order to get through the next hour or even day. A hug can be something that makes me feel better. A hug is an act of friendship, a promise that someone is there for you when you need it. I guess technically, excluding affection from hugs isn’t quite right. But it’s the affection of comfort. Of knowing you’re safe, and that there is someone there for you. It isn’t the affection I would reserve for a family member or significant other. It’s something completely different. For me, I start feeling huggy, or rater, in need of hugs, when I’m not feeling well. When my body is getting sick, and I stop being able to deal as well with the sensory assault that is surviving in my world. Or when I’m getting overwhelmed, and close to a meltdown or shut down, sometimes I need a hug… only sometimes. And on rare occasions when I’m feeling strong emotions, and my body doesn’t know how to react. Times when I need comforting the most.  But there’s often a limit… a window in which I want a hug. Go past that window in either direction, and hugs become a miserable thing for me again. They’re not a universal solution. I’ve been well past that window for the past few days – I skipped right past the “I need a hug” to the “don’t touch me, don’t talk to me, I can’t process any human interaction” phase. Sometimes hugs aren’t the solution.

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.

I’ve been known to write statuses or send texts to a few very specific people saying “I need a hug”. These people understand that for me, a hug is something completely different than it is for most people. I need a hug when I feel like the world is closing in, and when my tenuous grip on my sensory system loosens and I can’t control it anymore. Whenever people who aren’t those few see me hug one of them, or see me say that, they always get confused, and bombard me with questions like “I thought you didn’t like hugs” and “why won’t you hug me”. And it’s true, I don’t like hugs from most people. You have to earn your way into my “people whom I can and will hug” circle, by proving to me that you are a safe person who respects me and my need for space, boundaries, and honesty.

And sometimes, all I need is someone online to write “*hug*” into our chat window. Virtual hugs are the best kind, after all. All the intentions of making you feel better, without actually having to physically touch anything except some letters on a keyboard.

I will also say that sometimes for me, I will initiate hugs when I want to say “thank you” beyond just saying the words. So if I ever initiate an online or real life hug it’s probably because I don’t have the verbal ability at that moment to say thank you. And on that note, I wanted to thank all my readers who have come and commented, shared their experiences, or shared these posts. Every time I read a comment, I get a little warm, fuzzy feeling inside. If I didn’t respond to one, it’s not because I didn’t read it, or don’t care. It’s because I was so overwhelmed by responses that I couldn’t. So to anyone who’s ever left a comment here, shared a post, or sent me a message, sharing your thoughts and stories, *hug*, and thank you, for listening, thinking, and responding.


  1. Aww E. I’m so sorry. *hug*

  2. Reblogged this on AutismeTanken and commented:
    Alfred er også ‘huggy’. Så vi krammer meget. Krammer tit og krammer tæt og fast og nært. Når jeg læser dette indlæg forstår jeg en lille smule bedre, hvorfor Alfred måske har brug for endnu flere kram. Og jeg er altid klar med kram – uanset hvorfor.

  3. I always process grief alone. And always differently. I didn’t cry when my mother died, though I love her dearly–two years after her death I cried for her. When I had to shoot my dog– I was shattered. Perhaps, some year I will write along these lines as well. Be well.

  4. Thank you for your detailed descriptions about things in your life. It helps me not feel as much like a terrible mother. It helps me to stop with my own son trying to make/try to force/talk a lot about “it”. All these blogs discussed on the reasons why and how you/he feels re:problems,help me to better understand my 8 yr old son (rejection/negitive responses to me all these yrs.)…. and now understand The Why he responds/recoils to my hugs ….

    • Hi Kelly, Thanks so much for reaching out and commenting. Yes, for me, “talking about it” is just something that really isn’t helpful. I have to search so much for the words that I’m trying to use that it just makes it more stressful and unhelpful.

      As for hugs, yes, I recoiled from numerous hugs from my parents. I still do, and I’m about to be 23. It has nothing to do with not loving them, and everything to do with the fact that hugs, for me, are not universally “wonderful”. Sometimes a hug can mean “I love you”, but it can’t be forced, and I have to be in a place where the hug doesn’t mean “oh crap she wants to hug me and I’m tingling all over and I can’t deal with people and she’ll touch me and it will hurt and I can’t say no and stop it because then she’ll think I mean that I don’t love her and that’s not true, I just don’t want to hug her because hugging will make me more miserable and don’t touch me”. Does that make sense? (I’m not sure it does, but that’s some of what goes through my mind when someone wants to hug me and I’m not able to hug.

      Also, for some reason, side hugs are less offensive to me. I think it’s because when that happens, most of my body is still free, and they’re very easy to wriggle out of. 🙂

    • I know me too. Explains why my daughter does not. But now after so much time at 18 she can give me a peck and a touch when she goes to bed. and my boyfriend gets a hug now too.. 😀

  5. hugs

  6. Reblogged this on wincharles.

  7. my very sincere condolences… and hugs. wishing you comfort….

  8. I’m so sorry about kitty and your friend, E. I am sending good thoughts and a virtual *hug* your way. As always, I genuinely appreciate your insights. Take care.

  9. Thinking of you…

  10. virtual internet hugs.

  11. I am so sorry about the losses you have experienced. They are tough. Wishing comfort for you. **hugs**

    I really liked your explanation of hugs here, and in your prior post. My son definitely craves hugs like you do. He needs them sometimes, but not so much as affection, but as a regulatory process. He needs big ‘ol bear hugs, but we cannot linger. We squeeze and move on. If he needs us to hug longer, he will ask for another hug.

  12. I am so sorry for your losses. I completely relate to what you say about hugging. You actually helped me understand myself a bit more. Thank you. I do give virtual hugs often… so sending hugs to you and will keep you in my thoughts.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on so many things. You help me understand my son better & that gives me a new window into his world. I am grateful and I’m sending a virtual hug for you to set aside & hang onto just in case there’s ever a time when you wonder if your writing is important and truly touching readers out there. It is. Thank you 🙂

    • Thanks, Cathy. 🙂 I really appreciate the feedback and comment, as well. 🙂

  14. Perfectly said Cathy….and E, here is another virtual hug for you to hold on to!

  15. Thank you so much for this post, and also particularly for your reply to Kelly. I think my granddaughter may experience hugs in a similar way. There are times when she clearly avoids them, but other times when she will come up and so sweetly wrap her arms around my arm and lean her head on my shoulder. Other times, when things are too loud or otherwise difficult to handle, she will want a deep pressure hug.

    The two of us have gotten some funny looks walking into stores with one of my arms wrapped around her head – but hey, whatever. If that’s what helps her cope with what she has to cope with in that moment, then people can just go ahead and look.

    My granddaughter doesn’t have a lot of words yet, so I can’t tell you how much it helps to get a little glimpse of how things look from a perspective that might be similar to hers. Oh yes, and here’s a (hug) for you!

    • Thanks, Sheila. 🙂 Sounds like you and your granddaughter have a very special relationship.

  16. This post reminds me how I would much rather be wished and even feeling day over “have a great day”. A great day feels very similar to a bad day and most people do not wish others a bad day. I’d rather have a day where I feel even or balanced inside instead of my nervous system being overwhelmed by extreme feeling to include happy. So I get what you are saying about hugs. Thank you for sharing because its good to know I’m not alone. I don’t know you but I feel for your situation so I’m offering a virtual hug but only if you like. Otherwise I wish you an even feeling day! You are not alone, well only if you want to be.

  17. So very sorry about your loss. No one can really understand how you feel. When you or your followers feel up to it, check out our work. We’ve been focusing on service dogs and have seen some unbelievable relationships between dogs and autistic kids. The first response to the dog is the hug. One boy had no communication prior to his hug. With his dog at his side, he knows all his classmates by name, & is academically progressing even winning spelling B’s. (How do you spell the “B” in Spelling B’s?)

    • Thanks. 🙂 I’m really NOT a dog person – got attacked by a German Shepard puppy when I was 3, and haven’t really felt comfortable around dogs since. I can deal with them in small doses, but dog + over-reactive startle reflex + slightly overstimulated E = very messy. I do, however completely agree with the animal relationship helping. I am absolutely a cat person, and have a very special bond with my kitty, and I’ll bet it has done similar things as service dogs do for people. I’m definitely a proponent of the animal-human relationships. Plus, as kids get a little older, they can learn responsibility by helping to care for their friend. Thanks so much for your comment 🙂 And it’s spelled “Spelling Bee”. 🙂

      • Thanks for the spelling. Lots of people are canine challenged and I’m glad you’ve been able to substitute a cat. Our work with service dogs for physically challenged people really requires that dogs be large enough to support their human partners. In autistic kids, the dogs that should be large are the ones that specialize in tethering. We got involved with autistic kids when someone told us about her son who was in a park with her husband and bolted. Every time I think about her, I get goosebumps and want to cry. On another note, six months ago we adopted a Tibetan spaniel. We call him our pussy cat dog. He feels like a cat, acts like a cat, is always on someone’s lap, sleeps with us, and is just as affectionate. Feel better.soon. A new kitten won’t replace the one you lost, but will be a nice diversion.

      • 🙂 I prefer to think of it as “love a cat” – I’m not substituting anything! My kitty is my happy thing… We communicate really well, and I love cats. The kitty I lost was living at my mother’s house across the country, sadly. I have a kitty where I am, too. 🙂

      • At one point we had eleven cats and loved them all. In addition we had three Dobermans, but the dogs really didn’t much like the cats. Fortunately, we had enough love to go around.

  18. As a guy, I find it hard in terms of when to do what- a handshake, hug, or kiss (I have no experience with the last one yet) with girls. If it’s guys, I know it’s either handshake or hug- this depends on my rapport with them. If it’s girls, the fact that kisses is an “additional option” really baffles me.

    Don’t get me wrong. There were times I want more than just a hug from a girl I am dear to. But, since I didn’t want affect our rapport and that I thought it’s best to error on the side of caution, I never really mentioned that I prefer a kiss in certain instances. So, it has become a “bucket list” item for me (on top of finding a girlfriend for the first time).

    Personally, I only have a yellow and green light in terms of hugs most of the time. A green light will be someone whom I have at least some rapport with. A yellow light will be someone who needs to ask for my permission first. I don’t do red light unless I have a cold.

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