I was not a cuddly child. In my baby album there are exactly two pictures of me being held, willingly, by my parents or anyone else. In one I am just under a year old, by the Christmas tree with my mother, who has swooped me onto my back and is waving a tin of Johnson’s baby powder in front of my eyes.
In the other, I am about four years old, in summer clothes, leaning fully into my mother’s shoulder and looking ill or feverish. My father is slightly behind us, looking on with a strange expression on his face. They say children with autism are more cuddly and less “autistic” when they are feverish, and perhaps that is the case here.
I remember another incident that was not caught on camera. I was six and there was a power outage in our neighbourhood one night during an ice storm.
In the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of my mother & father talking in low voices and then a strange click, click, click. My father had quietly opened my bedroom door and was flicking the light switch. Normally this would have sent me under the covers, weeping, with my hands over my face, but this time there was no loud crash of light: the power was out, or nearly out.
Up in my ceiling, in the antique overhead light fixture, the two bulbs glowed only a little, dangling almost wetly like eerie little pumpkins. I was fascinated. I lay still, staring up and listening to the tiny, high-pitched whine of the filaments trying to light, strangely unperturbed.
My father went downstairs again and I heard him making a phone call, which was unusual: other than for work, my father never spoke on the phone. As an adult, I am the same way.
I drifted back to sleep and was wakened by the sharp sting of cold air on my face. I was wrapped in the quilt from my bed and my father was carrying me down the street in the dark and sleet. Behind him, my mother walked gingerly, head down, carrying my little brother in his own blanket.
We were headed to the Freys’ house, friends of my parents who had three children with whom my brother and I played. Their power was still on and it had been Dr Frey with whom my father had been speaking on the phone.
Normally I loathed being picked up or carried, or wrapped in anything at all, and would have fought and twisted like a panther to get away. Actually, by this time my parents normally would not have tried to pick me up at all; one can take only so much of a screaming, struggling child, I suppose.
But this was clearly a different set of circumstances altogether. For them, there was the necessity of moving to a warmer place. For me, the bitter cold, the dark, the ice tinkling off the trees, my father’s cautious steps, were new and fascinating enough to distract me, temporarily at least, from the sick feeling of being confined, engulfed, carried.
When I was a teenager I babysat for many of the families in our neighbourhood. I was good at it, and made a lot of money, and enjoyed the work because I knew what was expected of me. I also liked the children a lot, and they liked me very much in return. This “kid magnetism” may be partly thanks to having Asperger’s, which can feel like being 12 years old forever, for better or for worse.
At any rate, I was particularly close to one family who had three little girls. One day their mother sadly confided in me that her eldest daughter was not a “cuddly” child. This was in sharp contrast to the middle child, who was as roly-poly & tactile as a puppy. Her exuberance and forthrightness gave her mother a road map as to what was required of her, whereas the more aloof child, a beautiful fairy child as she seemed to me, seemed to make her uneasy.
Thinking of this incident decades later, and looking back at the wreckage of my own family, it did dawn on me that my own aloofness was probably hard on my parents as well. It may have felt like rejection, or naughtiness, or holding back.
Certainly my parents were struggling to begin with – my father was an alcoholic who eventually took his own life, and my mother drifted off into mental illness after their marriage fell apart. But having a strange, alien, “defective” child who rebuffed them at almost every turn must have been a torment.
This is, of course, one of the central conundrums of this condition – the need for body contact and the horror of it. My brother would rush up to babysitters and hug their legs; I would rush up, stop short and…offer to recite strings of numbers to them or talk in a cartoon voice.
There’s also the desire to connect with humans versus the need to save yourself from them; I would venture into a room full of people and then turn my back and minutely examine a doorknob or a heating vent.
But as noted Aspergians like John Elder Robison and Temple Grandin point out, and as I have pointed out in some of my own articles, it does get better. Brain plasticity, observation of “normal” human behaviour, and a desire to “fit in” count for a lot.
I am much more cuddly now in certain circumstances – I will allow myself to be handled in a yoga class most of the time, and willingly exchange “Big Squashy Hugs” with my friend Ann and some others. It’s what humans do to greet or comfort each other, and it feels rude and awkward not to do it, somehow. With few exceptions, it weirds people out and offends them, and I have no wish to do that.
Just don’t be too surprised if I ask you about your favourite prime number afterwards.