This is another picture I took at the Sacramento Zoo in California. These are 2 of the 3 cubs that came in the last litter. They spent an hour playing, rough housing, and annoying their mama. When they became exhausted, they huddled together and took a nap.
Autism is devastating in ways that people without children with Autism just don’t understand. Imagine that your child has fallen on the ground and begins to cry. Your first instinct is to rush in and hold them, to comfort them. But for many children with Autism, cuddling is out of the question. A hug is not only an intrusion on personal space, but feels uncomfortable because of the confusion in human emotion and the physical act itself. Hugs can feel like an embrace by a cactus to children that have a sensitivity to touch. Hugs are confusing because they don’t understand what the connection is between their sadness and your embrace. Needless to say, it can be a very painful fact in a parent’s life. Not being able to embrace your child, or have them reciprocate the embrace, is beyond painful.
We wanted so badly to hold our son. To show him affection and hopefully have him show it back. So, we started a new routine called “Hug the Little Man.” What we did was; hug the Little Man. That’s it. We hugged him as he walked past us, hugged him after changing his diaper, hugged him when we picked him up out of his crib. We hugged him when we wrapped him up in a towel after his bath, hugged him after changing his clothes, hugged him when we lifted him out of his high chair, and we hugged him when getting him in and out of the car. We (my husband and I) told him to hug the other parent. This part, we tried because we wanted to make sure he knew what we were called, since he is unable to speak. We also started whispering to him to hug his older sister. She also took part in the hug game. We also started hugging him as we read a certain book to him. When I read “Mommy Hugs” by Karen Kratz, or when my husband read “Daddy Hugs” by Karen Kratz, we would hug him whenever the book said “hug.”
The books themselves are not our favorite, but the word “hug” gave us the opportunity to not only say the word, but to do the action as well. His cognitive therapist recommended hugging him in the way that the book says, but we found that he didn’t have the patience for that. We simply have him sit on our lap and hug him whenever it says “hug.” There are 10 hugs in the book, so it gives you the opportunity to do/say it a lot.
At first, our son was very against being hugged so much. He pushed us away, frowned, grunted, and showed all signs of not approving. We, of course, gave him quick and light little hugs to start out with. We didn’t want to overwhelm him or make him hate it. After a little while, he started to accept the hugs that we gave him. He was slightly annoyed, but allowed the momentary interaction and then went on his way. We increased the tightness of the hug and the length. mind you it was still very quick, not even seconds long. After a while longer; he started to smile when we gave him the hugs. He smiled and giggled when we hugged him. We increased the hugs to a full on hug, with full strength of a real hug and full length. Again, imagine the last time you gave a hug and how long it took. We aren’t talking decades here, just a few seconds. Now, he will even lean into a hug when we read the book. He started to initiate his own hugs and to look forward to them at certain times of the day. He started giving them when he walked past us, he started leaning into them while reading, he even started to give his sister hugs.
Was this all a magical cure for his lack of physical contact? Of course not. He still hates strangers being close to him. He still hates it when my friend tries to touch him. He doesn’t like it when other kids get too close when they want to play. And he will only gives hugs to his sister if we say excitedly “give sissy a hug!” But he gladly gives us (his parent) a hug. He gives them to us of his own free will. He wants to hug and initiates it with us. This is the greatest gift that a mom/dad could ask for. If he never says a single word; typing “I love you mom,” will be enough for me. But the physical contact that comes so naturally for other children, is such a gift from him.
Will this work for every child? No. I can’t vouch for every child and every situation. But I can say that giving him positive reinforcement for things we find to be valuable (hugs), gives him a reason to want to do them. He may not understand why they are so important to us, but they have become important to him. Just like spinning may not be important to me, but I gladly sit down and do it with him because it means so much to him. By getting him used to the idea of the hug, and starting out slow and light, he was able to build up a tolerance and eventually like it. It’s like learning how to ride a bike; you start out slow and scared and work your way up to speeding down the sidewalk.