When an Autism Mom Needs Hugs…


–This is what I lovingly order Gabriel to do, every single time I hug him.

(Actually, it’s more of a loud beg than an order.) 

Gabriel gives what I call “shell” hugs.  His arms surround me, but barely touch me.

Meanwhile, I’m squeezing the stuffing out of him and soaking up every milli-second of it, because I know it won’t last.

Poor kid…   He got stuck with a Mommy who grew up in a very touchy-feely family and is always craving a hug. 🙂  I have a Mother who gives multiple, unsolicited, amazing MAMA-BEAR hugs and who is never the first one to let go, so I suppose hugs are in my DNA and I know no different.

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This is not to say that Gabriel doesn’t want to hug me (or anyone else), but with Autism usually comes loads of different sensory issues, and one of his is he doesn’t particularly like to be touched.  Any of his former/current teachers will back me up on this – there have been many a time we have all tried to get him to give high fives and he absolutely won’t have it.  He prefers to engage in the less, sensory-invasive greeting of a gentle fist-bump.  And he refuses to wrestle, HATES to be tickled, and in general, guards his personal space with a vengeance.

This is completely his right, and on the one hand I’m proud of him for being clear about his personal boundaries.  But on the other hand, I desperately need him to hug me.

He will do it though – because he has a such a sweet heart and I think he knows I need it.  Now that he is so much taller than I am, my strategy is to sneak in, attack the body, and clutch on to him before he knows what’s happening.  The response is always the same….  He sweetly (but reluctantly) cradles me, and I know full well he’s totally tolerating me and patiently waiting for me to back off.

Then I yell my usual, “Squeeze!” and he exasperatingly replies, “OKAY!” and his arms move in maybe 1 mm…..  And then…., I finally back off and remind him of how much I love him, and he gives me a goofy grin and says something like, “Yeah, I know….” and then quickly retreats and vanishes before I can do it again.

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The last time I remember him giving me a hug – a REAL hug I could feel in my bones – was in 2009 when he was six.  We were in Oklahoma City and went on a Ferris Wheel together – and I think it was more than he bargained for because when we started moving up, he became scared.  He latched on to me and would not let me go, and I remember how wonderful it felt.  I never wanted that ride to end.  I did feel bad that he was scared, but at the same time I absolutely savored that five-minute bear hug from my sweet baby.  It fed my soul to the point that I still remember it, 10 years later.

I consider myself very lucky though.  Very lucky, as Special Needs Mommies go.  Many kiddos with Autism will not let you hug, or even really touch them – at ALL.  Again, it’s not necessarily that they don’t want touch – but in some cases, they absolutely can’t handle it.  The brain and nervous system have trouble processing, or integrating sensory stimulus – to the point where a light touch to an arm could actually feel like a slap.

This condition is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which is:

a neurophysiological condition in which sensory input – either from the environment or from one’s body – is poorly detected, or interpreted and (or) to which atypical responses are observed 

From autismawarenesscentre.com/does-my-child-have-sensory-processing-disorder/

For a child with SPD or SPD-symptoms, processing the feelings of hot or cold, fatigue, hunger, lights, smells, sounds and tastes can be challenging and overwhelming.

How else does this affect our boys, beyond touch?

SOUNDS.  This is one reason why all three of our boys often plug their ears up and/or need to wear noise-cancelling headphones during school assemblies and/or at movie theaters. What may sound somewhat loud to most of us might actually sound DEAFENING to them.


TASTES: This is also why all of our boys are such picky eaters and have specific tastes…  Gabriel prefer softer, sweeter foods and would solely subsist on ice cream if we would allow it.  Noah leans more towards salty and crunchy and his drugs (er, foods 🙂 ) of choice are french fries, Nacho Cheese Doritos and Captain Crunch cereal.

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Samuel is a little more adventurous will cross sweet/salty with little issues – but with Gabriel and Noah, when it comes to food, the sensory lines are very clear and extremely difficult for them to cross.  If/when we attempt to get them to try new foods, severe resistance in the form of crying, arguing, and ultimately dry heaving is usually involved.

This is when we have to remember that they are not necessarily being picky by choice – it all falls under their sensory perception abilities.  So, we try very hard not to force new foods, and if they ever want to try something new on their own, we praise the hell out of them and flood them with so much positive feedback that we hope they will become more encouraged to go for it the next time they feel like trying something new.

Not all kiddos with Autism have SPD.  SPD exists on a spectrum and can affect only one sense like hearing, or taste, or all of them, however, it is clear that Autism and symptoms of SPD can and do definitely overlap.  None of our boys have officially been diagnosed with SPD, but again, symptoms are certainly present.

So…… With all this in mind, I truly count my blessings that I can at least get “shell hugs” from Gabriel.  I have asked him countless times if my hugs “hurt” him and he has always told me, “No.”  If they did hurt him, of course I would’ve stopped asking for them – and I know I would’ve had to have found some other way to get my “love fix” from my biggest baby – but again, God bless him for being tolerant of his hug-happy Mom. 

And, I also thank God that my other two babies are absolute lover-bugs and have zero problems with my hugs.  Actually, the hugs get bigger and stronger the younger the kids go.  Noah gives extremely decent hugs and even initiates them himself (Score!!) but Samuel goes in for the attack…!  He wraps his arms and legs around me and will not let me go, and then my Mommy Hug-O-Meter flies off the charts and I am about as happy as I can get. 🙂

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