Wednesday, January 30, 2013


This post of Gretchen Leary's made me wonder again about touch and aspies. People on the autism disorder spectrum are often thought of as being averse to touch, but I've been struck by how many massage therapists (I among them) seem to be over on the aspie side of things: a bit geeky, fascinated by how things work, a bit literal minded, a bit peculiar. When we're lonely we're often very literal about it – we want a hug. You don't need to chatter to us or make promises you might or might not keep; you don't need to map out a whole delusory universe in which we understand each other perfectly and our thoughts will never diverge. Just a hug, huh? It doesn't need to go anywhere or mean anything beyond itself. It's not a binding declaration. It's just a fierce, loving clasp, a spark of the sun brought to earth, a moment of communion.

For ordinary folk, it must be a little weird and a little unnerving. We may hug slightly too hard, slightly too long. It means both more and less to us than it does to you. The Christian mystic Charles Williams was notorious for hugs like these.

People – especially people who don't get it – will tend to construe them as sexual, or perhaps as displaced sexuality. And of course they can be infused with sexuality, like anything else. But it's as often the other way around: for us sex is often a displaced ecstatic hug. Eros in this case is just one more of those metaphorical interpretations, replete with social obligations, with which neurotypicals love to saddle raw experience.

God, how I craved touch, when I was growing up! My mother was very physically affectionate, but no one else I knew was. I used to love going to the dentist, the doctor, the barber: I was going to to be touched by someone else!

I knew, of course, that this was very wrong and weird of me, that it was something to be ashamed of. I would not have dreamed of telling anyone.

Then came the revolution, the hippies, the alternative free school, encounter groups, all that. I was delighted. Everybody was like me! it was just that some people were, like, way uptight, man. And my mission in life would be to get them to hang loose and be cool.

It turned out not quite to be as I imagined, and over the years I gradually faced the fact that I really was weird, even if I needn't think of myself as wrong. Not everyone needed a hug as much as I did. Some people didn't need them at all. To some people hugs were inseparable from a whole encrypted universe of meanings and repercussions, which was downright scary. I grew somewhat wary of touch, though I craved it as much as ever.

Well. You know how the story ends. Fast forward to to seven years ago, when I finally filled out the application to massage school that had been stowed in my sock drawer for years. I was too old, too fat, too male to be a massage therapist: I knew that. I knew I'd never be able to make a living at it. I knew I'd be a pariah at school. I knew it would be one more stupid mistake in a life of stupid mistakes: but I did it anyway.

Once again, happily this time, I was very very wrong.


Zhoen said...

One of my dear friends was one of the early Aspergers diagnosed kids. He does not like to be touched, I have never hugged him. So, I suspect it is a very individual thing.

I love touching people, hugs, haircuts and dentists as well. But not if I'm busy, not without my consent, not some people. I deeply suspect the autism spectrum thing is an independent variable. My D is a great hugger, loves being touched, and is definitely ADD.

Dale said...

Might be an independent variable, sure. I'm curious about it, though. I was really struck by how aspie the people in massage school seemed.

I too hate being touched without my consent, and there are certainly people that I just don't like to touch.

Dale said...

A possible correlation-without-causation that occurs to me: you have to have a bit of a thick skin about "being weird" to undertake a massage career.

Ryan said...

That's some deep stuff, man. I like your blog.

kristen burkholder said...

I look forward to your blog entries as some anticipate a drink at their favorite watering hole. I really, REALLY appreciate this post, not only because I'm an MT but also because my partner, Nathan, is ADHD and possibly on the aspie/autistic spectrum. I've always considered it a great fortune that he is physically affectionate, and can be temporarily "cured" with mere physical contact, such as hugs (which he asks for, outright), but never understood WHY. Your writing helps me get it. Thank you. Keep writing please, I/we need it.

Dale said...

Thanks so much, Ryan!

Kristen, thank you! It took my wife a long time to really believe that when I was troubled I just wanted to be touched, that talk was irrelevant and bothersome to me. We really do have different wiring, I think.

How fortunate Nathan is, I must say! xo

Zhoen said...

Correlation, yes, I think that's it. The ones who are touchy with that condition are really touchy, the ones who aren't really aren't. A magnification of whatever basic trait they start with.

Dick said...

So interesting to read this now, Dale. My Reuben is high-functioning aspy and recently - over the past few months - he's started to hug Emma and I. Big, tight, clinging hugs that last for a long time and from which we sometimes have to extricate ourselves in order to carry on cooking or dressing or tying our shoes! He's always been receptive to hugs, but these huge, enveloping embraces are something new.

Autism at this level of operations is a fascinating condition to witness and monitor. Both Emma and I have taught many aspy kids at St Chris (within whose informal structures they seem - paradoxically - to flourish). What became apparent to both of us over time was that the closer one gets to them, the more evident it is that, for all the difficulties that they experience in trying to adjust to what is for them an out-of-kilter world, there are palpable strengths on which they can draw too. This has helped us greatly in our response to Reuben's development during the past 10 years.

marly youmans said...

I, too, am quite well acquainted with Aspies and people with a splash or more of neurological oddness, and my own view is that a mother (well, it could be anybody, but it's usually a mother) who is one of those sorts who carries the baby close much of the day and frequently meets his (or her) eyes can make great inroads on an Aspie's reluctance to be touched.

But yes, an Aspie's hugs are not quite like anybody else's. Duration is usually off, for sure, but also there's a kind of formality... You know one is coming.

Perhaps you had what they call a "splash" of the syndrome--said to be helpful to artists. There's an Aspie checklist at the O.A.S.I.S. site.

Nimble said...

So many unspoken rules about touch. Thank you for unpacking some of that.