As a previous elementary teacher in an autism classroom, I often got asked why I was not more affectionate with my students. Don’t get me wrong, I did the occasional hugs, but in general I was not a big one for physical affection with my students. This was sometimes mistaken as aloofness or coldness, but that was certainly not the case. I simply had first hand experience of what showing a lot affection to young students in an autism classroom setting could lead to… lots of problems and behavior to un-learn.
My son is now almost 19 years old and has severe autism. I am lucky because he has never shied away from giving me physical affection. He loves his hugs. However, somewhere along the line, he also started displaying very inappropriate ways of showing others (even strangers) physical affection. He used to want to kiss and smell everyone’s knees. It is still by far his favorite body part. I think it was partly due to the huge amount of time we spent at swimming pools when he was younger. Everyone thought it was kind of cute when this 4-5 year old, who was just over knee high to many adults, would come up and kiss their knee. Most knew he had autism, so they would just ruffle his hair and say “How sweet.” Not the same response however when he was in high school. With a lot of hard work from teachers and therapists, we were able to shape that behavior to kissing and smelling the top of a person’s arm. Still kind of weird, I know, but it seemed the best we could do. I look back now, and wish I had simply stopped that behavior at the pool all those years ago. If I had just told people, that is going to be a big problem down the road, so let’s not encourage him. Ah, hind sight…
So as I entered the classroom, I was already armed with this knowledge. I knew how I interacted with my young students and how I allowed them to interact with each other would create a strong impression upon them that could last for years. So, I emphasized to the other adults and peers who worked with my students, that hugging was probably not the best idea. We did a lot of high fives and fist bumps. I know it may have seemed cold to some of the people and parents I worked with, but I hope the middle and high school teachers who later had my students would appreciate the expectation we had set.
Showing affection can be a very difficult topic to address in special education settings, but setting clear expectations and models for appropriate behavior can be quite powerful tools. In my store on teacherspayteachers, I have several resources you may find helpful. I have a social story on showing affection that you can purchase alone or as part of my Valentine’s Day unit.
Finally, as a thank you to all of you who take the time out of your busy day to read my blog, here is a FREEBIE for you!!