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hugsThe older of our two autistic sons has been dealing with a bully in his first grade class. His third bully in as many years. We have been working with him on being assertive with people treating him in unwanted ways. He’s come far in that respect, but still has trouble matching his facial expression to his words. He smiles, sometimes laughs a little, when he says no to his little brother. This confuses his brother, understandably. I don’t know if he does this with bullies or just with people he generally likes and doesn’t want to offend, but we’re working with him on matching his facial expression/body language with his words to make his wishes clear to others.

That disconnect between body language and intent has been a particularly tough one for my husband and I to navigate as parents. We’re a physically affectionate family with lots of hugs and kisses. Our play, while never violent, involves physical contact as well: tickling, swinging, zerberts, basically anything that makes the boys giggle. We frequently tickled more when the kid being tickled said “no” or “Stop it!” while still giggling. It was a fun part of the game until I realized that maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they did want us to stop and we weren’t listening.

Conflicting signals can be confusing for anyone, but especially so for people with difficulty in social interactions. We didn’t want to teach our boys that it’s okay to override someone else’s stated request on how they want to be treated. We certainly didn’t want to teach our boys that it’s okay for someone else to do that to them.

So we came up with some rules around physical contact. I use he/him/his here because my kids are boys, but they are interchangeable with she/her/hers.

1. You have the Right to Say No

It’s your body and you have the right to decide who touches it and how, even if it’s Mom or Dad doing the touching. We will ask before touching you, even for a kiss or a hug. Other people may not ask permission first, but you have the right to tell them no as well. If the person is not intentionally hurting you, be polite at first. For instance, if someone hugs you when you don’t want to be touched, you might say,

“I really don’t want to be touched right now,”

or

“Please don’t touch me without asking first.”

That doesn’t have to mean you wouldn’t be open to a hug later, but it might.

If the person touching you is trying to hurt you, or you’re unsure of the intent, get away and ask someone for help.

This rule also extends to other interactions like games or nicknames. If you don’t like a name someone calls you, even if they don’t mean any harm by it, you have the right to tell them not to call you that name. If someone tries to engage you in a game you don’t want to play, you have the right to say no and walk away.

2. Expect People to Respect your No

When you say no to a touch request from Mom or Dad, we will not touch you. If someone touches you without your permission and you tell him to stop, he should stop. If not, you can just walk away. If that still doesn’t work, find an adult to help. The same goes for other interactions like games or nicknames.

There are exceptions to this rule. If there is something Mom or Dad asks you to do for your own good, we may need to touch you even if you protest. For instance, you may not want to have your diaper changed, but we need to do it to prevent a rash. We will talk to you about it before touching you in cases like that.

The exception is only for Mom or Dad. It may not be Mom or Dad who is touching you, like when you get a shot at the doctor’s office, but Mom or Dad should be there. And it should never, ever be a secret.

3. It is your Responsibility to Respect Other People’s No

Just like you, other people sometimes don’t want to be touched. Always ask first. If they say no, then don’t touch them. If they say yes, but then change their mind later, stop touching them. Don’t argue, don’t keep asking, just stop. Period.

People with isms are often pushed to do things they don’t want to do. Even when those things are beneficial, like non-preferred therapies, it can feel like there’s no choice in the matter for the individual. It’s important for that person to know he at least has control over access to his own body.

Many people with isms also have difficulty taking the perspective of others, which makes it important for them to understand that other people control access to their own bodies as well.

This is the approach we’re taking in our family; your mileage may vary. Whatever approach you decide to take, make sure it’s clear. Mixed signals aren’t fun for anyone, but especially not for people with isms.