My kid had a tough time with the American personal “space bubble”, especially between preschool and 3rd grade. He didn’t get the handout of when you’re supposed to greet with a hug and when it’s better to nudge your classmate’s arm.
And how long is that hug supposed to be? And what’s the difference between a friendly nudge and a painful whack? And why does everyone else know this instinctively, but not the Aspergers child? He was in a hugging school, so that’s where we started.
The sensory integration issues that he came with only added to the fog of his filter. Hugs felt good; the stronger the better. Hugs helped him identify his boundaries. Friends who hugged hard and long gave him the physical boundary definition his neurons craved.
Every afternoon when I dropped my son off at kindergarten, his favorite little classmate would run over and greet him with an earth shattering, enormous, gigantic hug. I blessed that little girl every day. I’d never heard of Aspergers — I just knew that my little guy had a harder time than most fitting in. I am her fan for life because she made my son feel welcomed.
The problem surfaced when he wanted and expected casual friends to hug with the same gusto of close friends – and that just wasn’t going to happen. When his classmates started getting that “oh no, I’m being pinned” look on their face, we had to come up with a friendly, consistent, heard-over- the-ruckus command reminding him of the social rules.
Sometimes the ruckus was external noise from recess and play. Other times the ruckus was strictly internal. He couldn’t hear me because his thoughts were so loud. His “Mom, I’m sorry. I was dee-stracted” cracked me up every time!
THE SECRET: 1-2-3 RELEASE
Anyway, during one of those marathon hug sessions, I’d catch his attention and count “one-two-three-release!!” We practiced whenever we could. They say that practice doesn’t make perfect: only perfect practice makes perfect. So I shortened my hugs at home, and counted out loud each time. A lot of it is patterning. Since he didn’t get pre-wired for social conditioning, we had to work on muscle memory and verbal queues. We ended each hug with a big ol’ grin of satisfaction. I didn’t want him to fear hugs, or feel anxious about doing it “right”. But I did need him to learn and follow the social rules so that he didn’t get feedback of rejection or avoidance.