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What My Sister's 'Random Acts of Hugging' Taught Me About Disability and Life

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Since my sister Ashley doesn’t communicate through spoken language, she has to show people how she feels and what she is thinking. There is an age-old saying that actions speak louder than words. Ashley’s actions don’t just speak louder; they scream louder. She speaks with hugs and snuggles to say “I love you, and you matter to me.”

As a sibling of a sister with Angelman syndrome, I have become immune to embarrassment. When you have a sibling with a disability, you often become used to the stares of strangers and the uncomfortable looks of classmates and neighbors. I am used to people staring at us when Ashley becomes excited and ready to share a hug. This can be difficult when you are a teenager, and all you want to do is be cool and fit in.  As an adult, I now understand that Ashley doesn’t want me to just fit in. She wants me to stand out because she thinks I am special.

If I’m being honest, there was a time when I would resist Ashley’s public hugging and affection. Ashley’s hugs are super size, 2.0 hugs that definitely don’t fit into most people’s social standards of public affection. Ashley also doesn’t worry about where she is at when she wants to speak with hugs. I have been hugged in a gas station restroom, and nearly snuggled on while sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room. People who have known Ashley for years still feel unsure of how to handle her level of affection.  Still, if Ashley wants to give you a hug, nothing can stop her.

As her sister, I like to think that Ashley is helping redefine social customs so more people are open to expressing outward love and compassion. I know that Ashley has helped me be more outwardly expressive toward the people I care about, and she has certainly made us a family of huggers.

I believe the world would be a better place if we all loved as freely as Ashley. Her hugs come without warning. She doesn’t save them for holidays. They aren’t reserved as a
thank you gesture. Her hugs are sincere and spontaneous. Ashley’s actions speak
louder than words. Her hugs speak hope and trust.

Although Ashley speaks no words, she knows how to say “I love you exactly as you are.” My sister speaks with her hugs so the people around her will feel joy and pass it along to the next person that they meet. I see a lesson in this. Don’t hold back. Hug someone you care about. Make their day brighter. Pass along the joy as Ashley does.

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Originally published: July 12, 2017
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