(Screenshot used with permission)
I don’t remember when it was, sometime in the past 5 years I think, when I first noticed the ((hugs)) thing written in replies on forums or facebook posts as an expression of support and reassurance when the right words could not be found. I thought it was a lovely thing and I started doing it myself. Over the next two years, if you only knew me online you would have thought I was a very touchy, huggy person based on all the times I responded to someone with the ((hugs)). In real life, I am not that way. In fact, my husband likes to nicely tease about my incredibly short “Hug List” of people who I actually enjoy hugging. It includes the people I live with and one other person. Then there are people I will accept hugs from but always feel awkward about it; mostly extended family and a few other friends. Everyone else had better not try to hug me.
The use of the parentheses around the “hugs” have gone out of style in the groups I’m in, but I still see people typing it before they offer words of encouragement or advice. One of the first things I noticed when I joined the online autistic group was that even virtual hugs were not assumed to be wanted, but instead hugs were offered and a person might respond with an “accepted with thanks” or no mention at all. This carried over IRL when I went to a movie with a Facebook group of local adult autistics and allies. People were talking afterwards and a few of the NT allies were leaving and they asked each person if they wanted a hug before giving one. And if they didn’t, it wasn’t taken personally.
Can you imagine such a world if everyone were like that?! A world where you don’t invade someone’s personal space ever; you’re either welcomed or you just don’t touch them. A world where it is safe and accepted to say “no, thank you”, without the social pressure of knowing you’re going to hurt their feelings if you say “no”, so you say “yes” even though you don’t want to. I know there are some very touchy people who would struggle with this world. But wouldn’t it be better to be assured that the person you’re touching is 100% on board with it, rather than unknowingly forcing yourself on someone who’s internally just gritting their teeth and bearing it? Think of the lessening of sexual harassment incidents if we all went around with the assumption that a body only belongs to the person who inhabits it, and they have the right to decide who touches it? Imagine it is taboo to touch someone without their permission. Society would reject and put positive pressure on the manhandler, or he wouldn’t develop like that in the first place.
This is an instance where the general population could really benefit from adopting an autistic practice. In the mean time, if you know a person is autistic, ask them before you touch them. It may seem like a little thing to you, but it could be a big thing to them. Just having the heads up it’s going to happen and being allowed to decided if it should or not is a wonderful gift in this neurotypically based world.