The Autism Blog

Hugging Alternatives

July 16, 2019

Welcome to the July edition of Ask Dr. Emily! We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

Does anyone have any ideas to give a teenage high spectrum student alternatives for hugging? He is a big kid and wants to hug adults all the time, and we are looking for some alternative while he is in school.

As sweet as it is that he wants to offer hugs, I can see why you’d want to redirect this behavior at school. If you’re working with a behavior therapist or speech/language provider, that person could be a good resource for brainstorming specific alternatives to hugs. During that conversation, it could be helpful to think about the purpose or goal of the hugging – for example, to offer a greeting, to show affection, to start an interaction, etc. You can then come up with replacement behaviors that meet those same goals but are more appropriate to the school setting. A few specific alternatives to hugging could include offering a high 5, giving a fist bump, or even offering a handshake. With people or in situations where you may want to avoid physical contact altogether, then a wave or a thumbs-up could work. You could also consider verbal replacements such as saying hello.

In addition to working on replacement behaviors with him, you might consider coaching your teen on two other aspects of this situation: asking people for permission before getting into their personal space (e.g., “Can I give you a high 5?”) and then accepting their response if they decline. A social story could be helpful for modeling that scenario, as could helping your teen practice asking and then appropriately tolerating others declining those high 5s, handshakes, and so on.

Besides coaching your teen, however, it might also be helpful to coach the folks around him on how to handle hugging in this situation. Some people may find hugging to be endearing or charming, but it can be confusing to your teen if others encourage hugging while you’re trying to discourage it! Can you ask the adults at school to back you up with these efforts, by offering high 5s or reminding him to use a replacement behavior when he offers a hug? Perhaps they could give him very direct feedback by saying something like “We don’t know each other well enough to hug, but let’s shake hands instead.” It might take some reminders and practice for well-meaning adults in his life, but hopefully they’ll support you with a consistent and coordinated approach.