My autistic son wasn’t always affectionate. As a baby, he pulled away from embraces. Looking back, I am sure there were many times I stopped breastfeeding him because I thought his turning away or crying meant he didn’t want milk. There are many, many things I misinterpreted before his diagnosis. Because of that, even today when he is 7 years old, I try really hard not to prematurely assume things about his behavior.
As a toddler, my son became much more affectionate. He liked the deep pressure he felt from hugs. He liked to drape himself over my lap and roll around. I knew he wasn’t just doing it because he loved me, but also because it served a sensory purpose. But I valued it anyway.
Now, my son is still very affectionate, but expresses much more love for us while being that way. He crawls in bed with me in the morning and rolls up in the blanket as tight as he can get it, scoots really close, and then presses his feet against my thigh, or bends his knees and presses them on my hip.
His way of expressing affection looks something like this:
“Oh, Baby bird,” He’ll say in a high pitched voice, “You are so cuuute!” He will hug whatever body part is near him, my waist or my arm or my leg or my face, and squeeze tightly (sometimes suffocatingly). “Whee!” He will say and take my long strands of hair in his hands and cross them in front of my face so that if I speak to him I will immediately have my own hair shoved in my mouth. “You are sooooo cute, Baby bird. You are just a delicate flower!”
It’s kind of like torture love. Still, I am incredibly thankful for every single word and every single (excessive) embrace.
But I have recently become aware that it is time to set boundaries. I know my son is completely innocent in his motivation. I know my son is still years behind with his social skills. I know my son has a valid excuse for not acting as his peers in regard to displays of affection. I am in no way saying that his actions should not be viewed through the lens of autism.
But he can’t kiss people. He can’t go to school and embrace his peers and kiss them because he loves them. That might be okay at age 3. It’s not okay at age 7, autistic or not.
I happen to be quite firm in my belief that everyone should be taught to respect consent. You might have noticed from my other blog posts that I am very concerned about the effects of sexual abuse and assault. I incorporated this concern into my parenting by personally asking permission before kissing my kids and allowing them to request physical space, even in an argument, if they think we are standing too close. I have done this with my son especially.
“Can I kiss your cheek?” I’ll ask.
My son will nod or he may tell me no. I respect his answer.
But now the roles are reversed. My son has a new found joy in kissing. It is absolutely a sensory thing. It is absolutely fueled by his autism. I am not faulting him for this. But, I have to address it.
Personally, I don’t mind it so much because I know it *is* sensory. But will everyone know this? No, absolutely not. No one except his family will permit it. That is reason enough to take on the challenge of teaching him about personal space. But in addition to people not accepting that behavior, there are also people who will be triggered by it because they have been abused. Even scarier, this behavior makes children easier to victimize.
Here are the actions I have taken and the rules I’ve established. We will see in the coming weeks what effect this has:
- Define personal space and explain why it’s important to respect it with everyone. Let him hear me use the phrase “personal space” where it applies in other conversations, such as when disciplining his sisters for fighting or roughhousing.
- Rule: “Ask first before hugging or kissing.” As badly as I want his hugs and as much as I do *not* want to push him away, I do it anyway and make him ask first. I do not expect this to deter him from hugging or kissing. He is seeking that sensory input, so if the rule is he must ask first in order to get it, he will ask. (This is my hope, we shall see.)
- Rule: “Do not hug or kiss anyone, ever, at school.”. Perhaps I should make this rule more broad. But because school is the immediate concern, I am keeping it focused on that. Once he accepts this rule for school, I will broaden it to include other places he goes.
- Rule: Kisses can only go on cheeks, foreheads, or hands. Nowhere else.
- When he asks, “Can I kiss you?” I tell him where and how many times. I do not simply say “yes” or he will machine gun kiss wherever is closest. I say, “Yes. You can kiss my cheek two times.” He does, but will simultaneously grab some strands of my hair and cross it over my face when he’s done. So… we’re still working on that. (BTW, I plan to solve this hair issue by whacking most of mine off. It would be one less distraction.)
- Make a suitable consequence. I am not trying to teach him that kissing is equally bad as hitting. So the consequence is something like, “You will lose ten minutes of electronics time.” It’s not a big deal, but it does get his attention enough to make him think about his actions. Ideally, I want him to follow these rules because he understands the importance of personal space, not because he’s afraid of losing electronics time. But, you and I both know it’s not that easy with most kids. If I sense that he begins to do it just to cause a negative reaction, then bigger consequences will apply.
I write about a lot of things here, not always Autism. But this particular topic is for the parents of autistic kids who follow my blog. Despite writing about many topics, most of my readers find me through searches about autism, about which I am no expert. I simply share my own experiences and what little bit of knowledge I glean from raising my son and hope it helps others. If anyone else (parent, teacher, or autistic) has something to add about this topic, please feel free to post a comment. I’m curious to know if you have dealt with this, what has worked, or what did not. Your insights are just as valuable as mine. ❤