A Response to Former Special Ed Teachers Who Want to “Show Affection” to Our Adult Participants.

The first thing we teach all of the adult participants in our programs is the importance of personal space. This is a concept which seems clear to me, but it is one which we get a lot of pushback from the community about all the time, particularly when it comes to former teachers and staff hugging our adult clients while they are in program. This is a recent example from an email conversation I had with a former teacher and my response to that conversation:

….” Isn’t it normal for people who have known each for years to exchange affections? I know their work is important, but so is keeping up social relations with people in our lives, past and present?…”

Everyone has a right to their own bodies, the space around their bodies, as well the thoughts, hopes and dreams which come from their bodies. We get to choose who touches our bodies and who is allowed into our space. Plus we must understand that others have these same rights. As teachers and staff, it is critical to understand that we are not family or friends. Those are not the roles we should play in the lives of our participants. It is unfair for us to pretend otherwise. It is not that we don’t care, it’s a boundary. Intellectually/Developmentally disabled youth are vulnerable to abuse and dependence when they are not taught physical boundaries. As staff, we never hug our program participants.

And frankly, the practice of special education staff hugging adult students is infantilizing.

Personal space is a critical component of our adult program’s philosophy. As teachers and staff we need to remain mindful of our power differentials and we need to be mindful of how intellectually/developmentally disabled people have been treated historically. We do not touch without permission. We do not get into anyone’s space without permission. We do not touch other’s backpacks, cell phones or wheelchairs without permission. We do not speak for others without permission.

What is “normal” for non-disabled teaching staff in relationship to other non-disabled teaching staff is different, because of the power differential. I can also tell you as an Autistic person that anyone coming up and hugging me is extremely uncomfortable, even painful; however I may not have the verbal language to express that when it happens. Simple respect and mindfulness should make that understandable.

I love that our participants can maintain relationships with their former teaching staff, however those relationships need to be respectful, boundaried and mindful in order to make sure everyone remains empowered.

“…I disagree that hugging is inappropriate in every context, especially given that these are not our current students and they are in some cases adults. Though our current students and staff have a professional relationship, there is room for affection in the professional world…”

It’s important to emphasize that the neurotypical world is a difficult place to navigate for neurodiverse people. The boundaries we establish and maintain in program, including personal space, provide guidelines for our participants which they do not need to stumble around with, guess at or spend energy processing. Boundaries are a kindness.

You mention showing “affection” which is an interesting statement. There are many ways for us to show affection without physical contact and modeling this is important. I will use myself as an example since I am in a leadership position. I don’t think the ACAT participants or my teachers have any doubts about my affection for them. I express my affection through positive regard and respect for them as individuals; through listening, through honest praise, through creating an emotionally open and safe space to be part of everyday. And again by providing solid boundaries which can be counted on. One important boundary is the understanding that I am neither a parent nor a friend; I am a program director and my relationships with teachers and participants all exists within that context. I love the people I work with, but we exist together within a power structure. it is imperative that we understand the power differentials inherent in the context of our positions in order to lead mindfully.

I’ve worked with transition aged youth for 15 years and know that this profession attracts teaching staff who are “helpers”. Helpers empower themselves by regarding disabled people as helpless. I’m linking a couple of articles for you to look at as they might articulate these ideas better than me. This one and this one are about how what looks like helping is actually disempowering. Or what might look like compassion might not actually be compassion. Another reason for insisting on these boundaries is because we can’t always count on staff to be mindful.



Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California.

5 Responses to A Response to Former Special Ed Teachers Who Want to “Show Affection” to Our Adult Participants.

  1. Patricia says:

    Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives and commented:
    Really, really, really (one more time) really important.

  2. Aaron says:

    I typically have seen the opposite issue-where neurodivergent individuals-kids and adults want to hug and neurotypical adults deflect and go for the hi five, handshake, etc—I think there is a lot of grey area in this. Black and white precedents can create even more awkwardness for folks that may have a difficult time communicating-and therefore by creating imposed boundaries, we may be limiting expressive possibilities . We tell staff to not hug, I am not much of a “hugger” myself because of my own sensory differences-and I definitely model and create this culture of respect -but I think there is more to this.

    • acatalacosta says:

      Thanks for you comment. We talk about personal; boundaries from both sides, including teaching our participants that other have a right to personal space. Typically we find that personal space is not taught or even acknowledged in special educations, which creates a culture where ND individuals have no idea that such a thing exists.

      We believe that by having firm boundaries provides a safe space from which one can actually learn to create their own expressive possibilities.

      • Aaron says:

        That’s so interesting-thanks for your reply. I agree-firm boundaries are super important, and probably should be taught more in public special ed/specifically with the kind of cutesy-wootsy ableism that I think you and I have also witnessed (which is so bad, and infantilizing and gross). I guess I’ve been in more environnments in NYC where the lessons and boundary talks seemed over-done, to the point of limiting appropriate self-expression. Kind of the opposite of what you’re describing-so in no way do I really disagree. Just a different side of things. I run an inclusive theater group called Actionplay, so I’ve had a unique vantage point in working with schools.

  3. Pingback: Mentors and allies #autism | The other side

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