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How Being Autistic Makes Me Sensitive to Touch

I’ve always been sensitive to physical touch. As an autistic woman, sometimes being touched feels like toothpicks pricking my skin. It’s a feeling I cannot quite describe in words. I’m just not comfortable with certain people touching me. I never know where their hands have been and if making physical contact is sanitary. I also find that it’s difficult to know personal boundaries when it comes to acquaintances, friends, dates and family. Some people are huggers, while others prefer to keep their hands to themselves. It could be because they are unfriendly or they would like to keep the relationship professional.

I try my best to respect others’ physical space, but if they don’t let me know when I’ve crossed the line, it’s not really my fault if I make a mistake. People must be held accountable for their actions, rather than blame someone else. It seems as if I make physical contact with someone every day; it ranges from meeting new people to hanging out with friends. Friends often greet each other with a hug. Physical touch happens all the time, whether it’s intimate or just a friendly handshake. I believe that other forms of touch, such as cuddling, kissing, and holding hands is more intimate and serious than shaking someone’s hand or hugging. You should definitely ask before you make physical contact because many individuals are not touchy-feely. As young children, we are told to hold our mother’s or father’s hand as we cross the street. Yet as we mature into adolescents and young adults we veer away from that method of physical support.

It looks a little strange if you’re walking around the Vancouver seawall holding hands with your parents and you’re a teenager or an adult. Although some cultures are very touchy-feely, I prefer to keep my hands to myself, unless I need comfort or feel all right with making physical contact. Sometimes I find hugs to be too enclosing, but I’ve become used to the feeling over the years, so I’m not as hesitant about it compared to when I was younger. Most autistic people don’t really talk about touch, so I felt that writing about my thoughts and opinions on this topic would be beneficial.

I don’t know a lot about social interactions and the rules when it comes to physical contact, but I’m going to do my best to explain. I think the guidelines are different in each circumstance and relationship. Some individuals crave physical contact, while others are repulsed by it and would much rather prefer to keep their hands to themselves. We exchange a lot of germs when we hold hands, touch, or kiss someone. I understand there are health concerns related to this matter. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially if someone has a cold or infectious virus. I think we crave physical touch because we want to feel close to someone and to let them know that we care about them. It’s also a good way to connect with each other and provide compassion and support during difficult times.

I’ve broken up this story into sections, so hopefully what I’ve said resonates with you. I want to shed light on this topic and make others aware of how important or unnecessary physical contact can be for each individual. Hopefully this clarifies any questions and concerns others have.

Meeting someone for the first time

When we’re first introduced to someone new, most of the time we shake their hand to acknowledge their presence and greet them politely. Yet, not everyone is OK with this form of physical contact. It’s hard to know exactly why some people don’t shake each other’s hands upon meeting. But I think it’s a good decision to shake hands, unless you are sick or your hands are dirty. I like to be old-fashioned and show that I have manners. Yet it seems as if some people choose not to follow that tradition. When I meet someone for the first time, I want to know that they care enough to acknowledge my existence and they’re actually paying attention to me. Most of the time, people shake my hand when I introduce myself. However, some of the time, others are too hesitant or express dismay. It makes me wonder if the reason why they don’t want to shake my hand could be because of my ethnicity, my appearance, or something I have or have not said.

It’s really difficult to perceive someone’s intentions when you first meet them. I find myself questioning whether or not new social interactions will be a positive or negative experience because most of my past encounters haven’t gone well.

It’s definitely challenging to figure out how to approach new people, let alone feel comfortable if you’re ready to interact with them. If I meet someone online, I can’t usually tell if they’re honest and sincere. Seeing them in person may help, but I think most of the time it’s best to meet people in person — the old-fashioned way. However, we can’t all be skilled at attracting the opposite sex or excel at social interactions. It takes courage and patience to form new connections. Each time you introduce yourself to someone, you give off an impression. And it can either be positive or negative. You may think that you’re doing the right thing and being polite, but others may interpret you as pompous and overly confident. There’s always going to be someone who disagrees with what you say. I’m looking for the people who agree with me and don’t that I’m being pretentious or fake. Sometimes it feels as though these kinds of individuals do not really exist.

I strongly advise people to stay positive when they first meet someone, and act professional. Don’t say anything that’s too abrupt because you may offend people, creating a poor image for yourself. A handshake is a form of respect and acknowledgement, in my opinion. You’re saying: “Hello, it’s nice to meet you!” I think it’s a really mature way of greeting someone and introducing yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable shaking their hand, you could tell them that in a nice tone of voice. Shaking someone’s hand is also something you should avoid if you’re sick. No one wants your germs!

Hugging Someone

I’ve gotten super used to hugging people when I greet them or say hello – if the relationship is strong enough to allow this type of physical contact. Not everyone is a hugger. I’m certainly not if I don’t know someone super well. Hugging someone is more intimate than shaking their hand or holding hands. You’re getting up close and personal with someone. Sometimes being hugged feels as though I’m being strangled — if I’m not super close with someone. It’s always best to ask; it’s considerate and shows you respect their boundaries. If you are cordial, the other person will most likely behave politely as well, although there are some people in this world who enjoy being unkind and making rude comments. It’s probably because of their insecurities, or due to being bullied and teased in the past.

I think hugging someone for up to 30 seconds is considered respectful – any longer and the other person may start to lose their breath. Don’t suffocate anyone! If the individual you wish to hug doesn’t want to be touched, you have to accept that. Don’t try and force the matter on him or her! Finding someone else to hug may be a challenge, but you won’t know if someone else feels comfortable until you ask. If you’re feeling too shy about it, think about it some more before actually asking them. Talking to a friend or family member could be a good idea. I’m sure a counselor could give you insight as well.

Sometimes people believe that hugging is too intimate, but I really think it depends on the situation. If you’re holding someone for a while, then that’s probably too much. Ask them if you think they’re feeling uncomfortable. People love it when others are kind and considerate. Hugging usually isn’t something you should do with those you are in a professional relationship with, such as your co-workers, boss or personal trainer — although it really does depend on the circumstances and whether or not both parties feel comfortable.

High Fives

I’m never quite sure if it’s better to give someone a high five or hug them. I think a high five is meant as praise and is a lot less intimate than a hug. I feel as though this is more suitable for acquaintances or your teammates. If you don’t feel comfortable high fiving someone, then you probably don’t have a strong relationship yet. If you’re not ready for that, it’s best to let someone know so they won’t try to high five you again.

I believe high fiving is less intimate and informal than holding hands. It’s more appropriate with teammates and acquaintances because you aren’t holding onto them for a long period of time. If you were to hug or hold hands with someone you barely know, they may get the wrong idea and assume you’re into them. It’s better to save the intimacy for people you actually want to date. It also doesn’t exchange as many germs as holding hands and kissing.

I believe the reason why people crave physical touch is to become physically attached to someone, and let them know with actions that we care. Yet, sometimes the best way to show someone that you care is by telling them and saying it in a genuine tone of voice. Usually individuals who are not so keen on high fives, let alone physical contact are quieter people who don’t like crowds. It’s important to put into perspective how you would feel if someone tried to force you to high five them or hold your hand. It’s never a requirement, but rather a request — and sometimes that request cannot be granted due to someone not feeling comfortable physically touching the other person.

I hope individuals reading this realize that as an autistic person, it’s hard to tolerate touch. I’m never sure whether or not it’s better to just say “hi” or shake someone’s hand when first meeting them. But I feel as though this question should be answered intuitively. If the other person doesn’t really look friendly, then I wouldn’t hold out your hand and ask to shake theirs.

There are times when it’s OK to be touchy-feely and others when you need to take a step back from the situation and ask yourself if it’s appropriate to make physical contact. If you touch someone without their permission and they dislike it, it’s possible for them to report you for assault or sexual harassment. I don’t hook up with strangers on dating apps. It may relieve your sexual craving, but just think of all the germs you will exchange. If you don’t want to make a doctor’s visit to your family doctor, I suggest you stay away from random dating apps. Your body will thank you and you won’t have to worry about feeling violated or mistreated. I think part of the reason why women are treated so poorly by men they meet on dating apps is because they are viewed as a trophy or object and not an actual person. It’s upsetting to see that this is how men choose to treat women in society, when they could be more civilized and contain themselves.

It’s up to two individuals to decide if physical contact is appropriate. You may feel comfortable hugging one individual, but not a different person. And that’s OK. We all have preferred friends and even though it’s hard to take rejection, you do need to be honest.

I’m in control of my own actions and I won’t let someone violate my personal space. I hope that through reading this story people have come to understand how touch affects an autistic woman. I’m proud to share my story and also hear what others have to say about my views and opinions.

Physical contact can be offensive, so we do need to be careful about who we touch and make sure we ask permission first. I would like to see more people take charge and stand up for themselves. If you feel uncomfortable, say something and don’t hold back. That can help prevent you from being a victim of sexual assault or harassment. Respect someone else’s space and expect that they respect yours.

Getty image by Kasin V.

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