I am not a “hugger”.

I’ve never been one, either. I’m not sure why. I’m just not a fan. When someone comes up to give me a hug, I can feel my body stiffen. It doesn’t matter if it’s a close relative or an acquaintance, it’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I have learned to cope with it but it’s not my favorite way to greet someone.

I’ve understand now that I’m what is called a “sensory avoider”. I don’t like being touched or standing in a crowded room. Places like Costco and Wal-Mart make me want to run for the hills.  I may end up paying more for diapers, but it’s better than having a panic attack next to the giant packages of paper towels.

My son Howie, on the other hand, is a hugger. A huge hugger. I haven’t officially kept track, but there are days when it feels like he has asked for about a thousand hugs. And all from me.

See the tabloid headline now: “Sensory avoider gives birth to sensory seeking kid!”. I don’t remember learning about this possibility when studying genetics in high school. Considering my husband is also a sensory avoider, we must both be carriers of the sensory-seeking gene.

Howie’s been a sensory seeker since I can remember. It started mostly with sleep issues, with a constant need to be next to someone (me) while sleeping. He created a technique he called “tunneling” – meaning he would stick his hands into the side of my neck and ask me to press my head down into his hand. This is how he would fall asleep for about two years until we discovered that weighted blankets, body pillows and 2mg of melatonin did the trick, although I still have to lay next to him at night with my arms wrapped around him in a giant hug as he falls asleep. Sometimes when he has a hard time falling asleep or is uneasy in a situation, he still asks if he can “tunnel”. With me. And only me.

The hugs can interfere with our daily routine. I’m trying to change a diaper, and he needs a hug. I’m trying to make or eat breakfast/lunch/dinner and he needs a hug. There are days when he asks me for hugs for hours straight. I know others see it and think it’s cute. When we had the Children’s Hospital researchers here a few weeks ago, Howie was clearly uneasy about them being in our house. He asked me over and over again “Can I have a hug?”. He would say this as he was digging his legs into my lap and his hands into my neck. The researchers smiled and said “aw, that is adorable!”. It was all I could do not to scream.

How awful is that? My own kid’s hugs can make me want to scream.

But it’s because they are more than just hugs, as I tried to explain to the research team. It’s his cry for help.

I’ve learned to differentiate between different hug requests – ones for when he’s happy and proud, ones for when he’s bored, ones for when his body doesn’t feel right after something he ate, ones for when he’s tired, and ones for when he’s completely out of sorts. Those last ones are the most difficult, because they hurt the most physically and emotionally. When he’s unable to regulate his body, he squeezes me so hard that he actually chokes me. But I know he needs them to make himself feel better, and it takes every inch of my being sometimes to give him the hug back.

But I do. Because I’m his mom. And I know it could be so much worse.

Until he learns how to regulate himself, those hugs are all he has to make him feel right. We’ve tried to teach him ways to help himself – squishing under pillows, sitting in the bean bag chair, climbing in the body sock – and we’re working on giving him better words to use when he’s out of sorts so others can help him. We’re always showing him more appropriate ways to get the sensory input he so desperately craves. My husband will pick him up and squeeze him like an accordion (because if he calls it a hug Howie runs screaming away from him), and Gerry will have a gentle pillow fight with him. My hope is that someday “Can I have a hug?” won’t mean “I need help”.  Someday it will just mean “can I have a hug?.”

I can’t wait to write that headline.

U can’t touch this
Look in my eyes,man
U can’t touch this
Yo, let me bust the funky lyrics
U can’t touch this
” – You Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer

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