Why Hugs Aren’t Free (for my son and me at least)

Today has been as busy as many days in my life. This morning, we took Thatcher to the dentist. He was not happy about this. We brushed his teeth ahead of time as we always do and he was not happy about it. He didn’t want to open his mouth or let the brush vibrate on his teeth. Obviously, it’s a sonic tooth brush and normally, he enjoys the feeling of it on his teeth and tongue, but not recently, partly because he has four loose teeth. The last time we cut his finger nails, he acted like we were torturing him and to him, it might have felt like torture, especially when his dad accidentally nipped him a little with the nail clippers. Most of the time, he’s happy when he freely gives hugs, but he will push away if he doesn’t want a hug or doesn’t feel socially obligated to give a hug.

I can relate. I have never liked hugs. They’ve always felt awkward to me. I’m perfectly happy chatting with friends and family without the obligation of touch. It’s not that I don’t enjoy another person’s company because I genuinely do enjoy the company of my family and friends. I just don’t want to hug you. I don’t want you to put your arms around me and squeeze up against me. Quite frankly, you are too far into my space bubble for comfort and inside I am screaming, “When will this embrace end?!” And when the embrace finally ends, I feel an enormous sense of relief. Friends and family alike have suggested that perhaps I, too, might have some Autistic characteristics. This would not surprise me because despite having a master’s degree in my field and being completely satisfied with my job, I am about to embark on a new scholastic journey by getting a second bachelor’s degree, even though it seems crazy to go through the stress of college all over again, especially while also teaching my own peers. I have intentions of learning sign language so that I can use it with my nonverbal son and teach others how to use it with their own nonverbal Autistic child for a minimal (cost of the textbook) fee. This is my way to give back to the community and help those in the ASD population. This is what I do for fun. I learn new things and take in as much of my environment as possible since I didn’t acquire as much knowledge as I would have liked when I was younger. I wasn’t delayed in the way that my son is delayed, but despite having a very low reading speed, due to undiagnosed dyslexia and an inability to hold my attention for significant periods of time, I have managed to obtain a BA in English and an MFA in creative writing and trust me, there was a lot of reading involved and I’d rather be reading than hugging you.

Thatcher, on the other hand, will hug you. He might even enjoy hugging you sometimes. This is where he and I differ on how much we crave human touch. I love hugging my son back, too. And I love hugging my husband. I feel comfortable and safe when I hug them and only them. I have come to the conclusion that this must be because I chose to be intimately close to my husband and my son lived in my belly for nine months. Their scents are familiar and not odd to me in any way. This is not the case when I hug other people. Perhaps it’s because I pushed my mother away so often when she attempted to hug me. I’m not sure, but she has stated numerous times that I was never fond of hugs or cuddles, even as a baby. This is how I can relate to those “on the spectrum.”

I’d also rather not shake your hand. There are so many reasons why in this case that are more easily explained than my lack of love for hugs. When someone reaches toward me for a handshake, I am going through 100 different scenarios at once.Will this person’s palms be sweaty? Will their hand be too cold or too warm? Will they squeeze my hand to the point of it hurting? Will they barely touch my hand at all, curling away as if they’ve touched something repulsive? Did this person wash their hands after their last trip to the bathroom? What did this person touch right before they touched me? Was it a surface full of germs? If so, will I catch something and if so, how long will it take me to recover? I don’t have time to get sick unless it’s during winter or summer break. Otherwise, I’m going to have to suck it up and hope it goes away quickly because I have stuff to do.

Clearly, these thoughts are overwhelming, but I politely hold my hand out and give them a firm, but gentle shake. I’m going to sanitize my hands when they are no longer within my view, most especially so if they coughed, sneezed, or even mentioned that they’ve been sick. I often wonder if this is how the Autistic mind works. I am able to reach out my hand, but even so, if the shake is awkward and I think that the person won’t be too offended, I will comment on their grip, especially if it is too much and I felt like they were trying to crush all of the bones in my hand. Then I also wonder if everyone has these anxieties about shaking hands.

And hugs. Does everyone have anxiety about giving someone a simple hug? I say simple, but now that you’ve done some reading, “hug” probably doesn’t seem like such a simple word anymore. Every night, I tuck my son into bed and I ask him for a kiss on my cheek. Sometimes he willingly gives me at least one kiss. Other times he gives me multiple kisses. And some nights he flat out refuses to kiss anyone. This is okay with me. Kissing someone on the cheek is weird, even if it is your mom and you are seven. We actively don’t ask for bedtime cheek kisses at all when someone in the house is sick. We’d just be spreading around the germs and we are all too busy with teaching, going to school, therapy appointments, and out-of-town family visits to get sick or at least stay sick for too long.

So please forgive us for not giving you a hug, especially if we saw you a few days ago, or last month. It’s not that we don’t enjoy your company. We honestly do enjoy the company of our loved ones. It’s just that someone touching us can evoke enormous anxiety. Sure, I will give you a pass if I haven’t seen you in a long time and Thatcher will give you a pass on his own terms, but we truly have to be in the right frame of mind to want to hug or touch another person, regardless of how close we are or how well we know you. Our awkwardness in freely giving hugs is our burden to carry and we wear it proudly, so long as those around us understand that it’s not that we don’t want to hug you and get the same feeling you have, which I assume is warmth, love, and a sense or safety, but that our genetics dictates that we will never feel the same about hugs as you do.

That being said, if you find someone like us who will give you hugs freely, you are truly blessed because inside we are still anxious. We still feel awkward, but we will still try our best to make you feel happy and give you a hug despite our anxiety, so when you are lucky enough to get a hug from Thatcher or me, you should feel blessed because for us, that hug wasn’t free.

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