something as simple as a hand on my shoulder or unintentional contact in crowded areas makes me want to crawl out of my skin just to avoid it. It’s a startling and alarming feeling, even if I know it’s coming; It requires most of my self control to avoid social awkwardness by recoiling as if burned and I’m often “out of sorts” for a long time afterward while I try and “get myself back together”. I suppose I could liken it to something like a “fight or flight” reaction or a short term “traumatization”. Even people I’m comfortable with like my parents, sibling and best friends elicit this reaction from me.
The onrush of sensory input can be overwhelming, even painful, particularly if the touch is unexpected, prolonged, or intense. I often feel my personal space has been invaded and that whoever is touching me must want to take something from me.
I have had three dreams where someone touched me. Three dreams, in my whole life.
Now I know you’ll be frowning, and thinking something along the lines of but you don’t remember dreams! How could you know?
I know because when I had those dreams I woke up amazingly happy, in a state of joy I’ve rarely experienced. And that was because in each of those dreams the person who touched me, who embraced me, was someone I trusted, someone I knew (in the dream) really cared about me.
And that has never happened in real life.
In real life the occasional person who has hugged me has usually, before they have even let go, already half-turned to someone else and begun another conversation. Now I don’t know a lot about NTs, but that sort of behaviour says to me that the hug is not important, that it’s a duty, something to be got out of the way. Look, I’ve hugged you like you’re a normal person, now stop complaining.
The other hugs I’ve experienced have been from autistic men who think that I’m interested in them. One of the things that scares me about associating IRL with other autistics is that the men, as soon as they decide they’re onto a good thing, disregard my autism completely. No matter how many times I explain that I have issues with physical contact, that I can only do that once I trust someone and know them well, it’s all come here, I want to feel you up! and When’s the sex happening? and I freak, completely, and have a meltdown, and tell them to never speak to me, never come near me again.
I do hug people; I hugged a colleague last week, someone I hadn’t seen for four months. It helped that I know he likes to hug people, and I have watched him do it a number of times. So I had the script down pat – made appropriate eye contact, got the timing of the hug right (I think – the release may have been a bit slow) and altogether enjoyed it. I might even manage it when he comes back in a couple of months.
But the other side of that hug is that it only highlights that I’m not normal. No NT thinks about a hug, plans for it, watches other people to see how it’s done. I hate having to focus on the mechanics rather than just enjoying the situation.
And before that? Not sure of the last time I touched someone myself (other than professionally). But there have been numerous episodes of colleagues walking up behind me and touching me on the back or shoulder. How can I make them not do this? How can I explain that being unexpectedly touched is like being shoved face first into a three-week-old, maggoty, stinking piece of meat? That it’s a visceral reaction that happens before I can do anything? That it makes me want to scream, to cry, even to vomit? That I don’t want to react like this, I really, really don’t, but it is something over which I have no control?
Of course, they figured this out at school. Sneaking up behind me to poke me in the kidneys was high entertainment. I hated them. Hated that they saw my distress and kept on doing it. Loathsome little shits.
This isn’t a problem that interests NTs, so there seems to have been no real physiological research. I can only speculate that it’s an offshoot of the sensory miswiring, a combination of wrong signals, too many signals, and all the learned psychological overlay from childhood that tells you that when someone touches you, what’s coming next isn’t going to be pleasant.
Anyway, it’s definitely nothing like what NTs seem to feel.
I think if I was only touched in the right way, by people I know and trust, that I could get used to it. I dream of having friends who understand this, who give me time to feel comfortable, who tolerate my clumsy practice runs until it all feels completely natural.
But once again, I’m not holding my breath.