Do you love or avoid hugs? Sensory sensitivities may cause some autistics to feel uncomfortable hugging. There might be a type of hug that works for you.
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Welcome to Meet My Brain - A Field Guide to Autism. I’m your host, the Autistic Woman.
When someone says to you “give her a hug for me” do you actually do it? It’s not literal right?
Some autistics do not want to give or to get hugs. They might not like to be touched. It’s common for an autistic person to have sensory sensitivities so touch can feel very different and more intense than it might feel to a non-autistic person.
This episode is about hugging from one autistic point of view.
There was a time when hugs made me uncomfortable and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t quite understand what people did what felt so awkward to me. Hugs are deeply personal to me yet they seem casual in some contexts.
Hugging is cultural. There is different hugging etiquette within the US and the world. It can be expected or it can be considered rude depending on where you are.
In the culture I was raised my extended family loved to hug. Once you’re an adult you’re expected to give hugs when greeting each other and when leaving whether it’s a party or dinner or a visit.
It just seemed like something social you do. I became more conscious of it as I watched other adults embrace warmly. It genuinely comforted them or just made them feel good and loved. It looked natural.
Once I was social-hugging age I felt like I didn’t know how to do it. Do you put your arms over the other person’s or under? Where on their back do you touch them? How long do you hug? When is it appropriate and when isn’t it?
I’d watch other people and found few answers. What was I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to act or react? Can someone tell when they hug me whether I’m unsure of myself?
After years of real-life practice it occurred to me that I tolerated hugs and I wondered what was wrong with me. I would hold my breath and probably tense up. I questioned whether I had no feelings and I knew that wasn’t the case. It was just that it felt uncomfortable to me.
I feel relief now that I understand that avoiding hugs can have an autistic reason.
I’ve found that hugs can depend on the relationship. It’s likely not appropriate to hug your boss but your grandmother might not like it if you ignore her.
When someone says “I have to give you a hug” in a way that means I have no choice, I feel myself freeze up. How am I supposed to hold my body? How close do I get? Can they tell I feel uncomfortable?
Or maybe I just don’t feel like being hugged. Since I equate hugs with an expression of emotion it doesn’t seem natural to have to show it on demand.
I’ve learned there are different kinds of hugs. Here are a few:
Spontaneous hugs out of missing someone close or wanting to express my feelings are nice when both of us are on board with it.
There are the comforting hugs when one person is sad or distressed or when you’re leaving for a long time. Those can feel supportive.
There are controlling hugs. Those ones where you go to shake someone’s hand and they say “come here you” and pull you into a hug? I hate that.
There’s the guy hugs. The one I see guys give when greeting each other. Arms at a 45 degree angle then arms wrapped and then they pull toward each other side to side and often do a quick pat on the back. Those seem to happen between men who consider each other equals, not a threat. I’ve heard this called a handshake-hug-hybrid.
There are kid hugs. Those can be okay if it’s a sweet little kid wanting to hug you. They’re into giving hugs without expectations. It’s about them and that’s more than fine with me.
There are sensory-seeking hugs. I have a friend who considers himself on the spectrum and is the opposite of me. He loves hugs. He’s very polite and will ask before he hugs. I know he’s not judging me. And he does feel like a cuddly teddy bear.
There are blanket hugs. That’s when I heat up a blanket in a dryer and wrap it warm around my body. That’s a sensory hug for sure.
There are warm, loving hugs. There are a few family members and friends whose hugs I’ve come to treasure. We are very close and I know it’s an expression of their love for me and mine for them.
There are intimate hugs with a partner or lover.
There are unconventional hugs. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like a hug when you drink a wonderful cup of hot tea that warms your body? With someone else it feels especially good.
I was visiting a friend recently and he was expecting someone to stop by. I’d heard him talk about her before and felt like I almost knew her. He told me that his friend didn’t seem to like hugs, that he could tell she was uncomfortable when people tried to hug her. I appreciated knowing that ahead of time.
When his friend arrived we were introduced and there was that brief moment when you know you are expected to hug hello. I saw her arm move as if she thought she was supposed to give me the mandatory hug and I hoped my body language was saying I’m thrilled to meet you but let’s not hug. I felt a bit awkward and at the same time it was nice to respect someone’s space.
Now that I understand there are different kinds of hugs I’m not as hard on myself when they feel strange in some circumstances.
If I don’t hug enough it doesn’t mean I don’t love. It doesn’t mean I don’t think about how much I love. It means that somewhere inside my brain there is resistance I can’t control, understand or grow out of.
When it comes to hugs, autism can be a culture all its own. Our preferences range from “I’m not a hugger” to “can I have a hug?” Sensory sensitivities determine our comfort level.
There is a hug that I call the safe hug. That’s when I say in an email, text, in person or on a podcast “sending you a hug.”
You can learn more about autistic traits in this podcast. Listen to Sensory Sensitivities about how autistic senses are affected by autism.
Don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m on Twitter at @anautisticwoman or you can email me at
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This has been Meet My Brain - A Field Guide To Autism, I’m the Autistic Woman. Slava Ukraine!