About the writer…
Sam Castell-Ward experiences touch in a more intense way than others may do, so he can experience sensory overload from unwanted or unexpected touch and can still feel someone’s touch long after they’ve let go.
Consensual affectionate touch is important to Castell-Ward to the extent that an absence of it in his life can cause depression and its presence can lift his mood for varying amounts of time. Below are his thoughts on touch and intimacy, if you relate to what is said we would love to hear your perspective too.
Short examples from my personal experience
When is touch intimate…?
Whatever your intentions when you touch someone, it may not mean the same to the other person. It depends on the situation and their relationship to you. It is different for different people; just because the way you touch someone isn’t intimate for you, it still could be for them.
On the train, it feels too intimate when my body is touching someone else’s and if my fingers accidentally touch someone else’s, I worry it may come across as me trying to touch them in an intimate way.
A doctor may touch me or others in areas it would be sexual if someone else touched them, but it being in a work environment and the manner it’s approached makes it not intimate.
A medical person may want me to touch their fingers in an examination and feel it’s fine, but it feels too intimate for me.
Friendships and Gender
Some friends may hold hands and not find it too intimate, but some may. I feel that women are more often physically intimate in this sort of way with other women, than men are with their friends. Some female friends will even sit on each others laps, touch or slap each other’s bums and grab each other’s breasts. I think that this would nearly always be interpreted as sexual if a man was to do this with them, even if he was a friend.
I’ve noticed some women have said they feel that their female friends doing this to them is sexual harassment, but that the friend who did it thought what they were doing was acceptable.
Friendship and Dating
I feel that some women are more tactile with their friends, whatever gender they may be and I used to think that female friends holding hands with me or cuddling me was us being intimate and something that would lead to a relationship. After I learned that some women are just physically affectionate with their friends, I felt better and just was glad that they wanted to show me affection, but didn’t think it would lead to a romantic relationship, though this did mean that I could be unsure if a woman was looking for a physical relationship or not if she showed me affection that could be seen as what you might experience in such a relationship, such as holding hands.
Religion and Culture
I feel that whether touch is intimate or not can depend on the individuals involved and their culture – I was told that in some parts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), women can hold hands with women and men can hold hands with men, but that men and women can’t hold each other’s hands, because it’s thought of as to mean they’re together sexually. Comparing this to my experiences in western society, I feel that women can more often hold hands in public without people assuming it’s intimate than men can; with people assuming men holding hands means they’re a couple more often than they assume this about women holding hands, not that people never assume this with women.
I was also told that in some parts of the UAE; such as Dubai, (which has been thought to have accepted some western customs in the interest of tourism), women and men can hold hands in public, without it being seen as too intimate.
I’ve been told that some Muslim women will find a handshake too intimate and refuse to shake someone’s hand, but a handshake might not feel like any sort of affection to someone from western culture.
When I went on dates with women I’d met for the first time, I felt that a hug or a kiss would be seen as too intimate a greeting, so we sometimes had no physical greeting. On dates where we shook hands, it made me feel less close with the woman I was dating than I did on dates with women where we didn’t have any physical greeting and the handshakes made our dates feel business like and impersonal to me.
Touch in family
Hugging and kissing family members always felt too intimate for me as a child, as it can for other autistic people I’ve seen talk about this subject. I think that people’s family members may not feel it’s intimate, but it can feel too intimate for someone who can experience sensory overload from too much touch.
There is also the concern that someone might not know for certain if the touch would be intimate for this person from their family and this concern can also apply to touch between other sorts of relationships; such as friendships and greetings for people who are meeting for the first time.
When I was a teenager and hadn’t realised that handshakes are traditionally left hand to left hand or right hand to right hand, I offered a friend the wrong hand when going for a handshake and he said ‘I don’t wanna hold your hand!’ Which hand I offered for our greeting determined whether it would be too intimate or not.
Kissing on the cheek
I noticed some people will kiss someone on the cheek the first time they meet them and I worry if the people being greeted may find this an invasive level of intimacy from someone they’ve only just met, when the person kissing them may have thought it was perfectly fine and that they weren’t crossing any boundaries.
I’d thought that kissing on the cheek was a more intimate greeting than a hug, though someone I said this to felt that a kiss on the cheek was a formal and impersonal greeting, while a hug was a much closer form of affection.
A friend from Sweden said that when greeting people, they would touch both their cheeks together and make a kissing sound with your mouths, rather than actually kissing on the cheek, as doing so would feel too intimate. She said ‘if you put your lips on my cheek, that means you want to have sex with me’.
I’ve been told that people from Brazil more often touch people affectionately when greeting them or spending time with other people than English people do; by putting their arms round each other, holding hands and cuddling up. Groups of people might touch each other in this way without it feeling too intimate for them, though this can be too much for people more sensitive to touch, who can feel it’s too intimate for them. I’ve been told that this can be a big problem for people (who are more sensitive to touch than others) in places where close physical affection is part of the culture and they find that they have to be affectionate with people, rather than upset them.
I’ve held hands with women in workshops and that’s not felt intimate, because of the setting, though other people said they enjoyed holding hands in workshops I’ve been to and I felt that this touch much have been more intimate for them. I felt that they may not have respected the boundaries I’d felt I was being sensitive to.
When holding hands in a workshop, it appeared that a woman was OK with doing so, though she asked to not interlock fingers with people, which showed there can be different levels of intimacy when holding hands.
Any type of touch can feel intimate for someone and people’s relationships with touch can be different from one another. Some types of touch may be fine for everyone involved, but assuming someone will be OK with the touch you think is fine can make them uncomfortable or even traumatised, with them feeling their boundaries have been ignored. I find that not assuming someone will be OK with the touch you may consider giving them is part of respecting them.
I think that it’s also important to know that not having certain types of touch regularly enough can make some people sad or depressed. While it’s not right for people to be touched by people who might not be OK with it, it can help to consider giving someone touch that you’re both comfortable with and ask if they would like to be touched in any of those ways.
Some people appear to think that all autistic people never want hugs or any other physical affection because they know one autistic person who doesn’t tend to want the affection they want to give them; but just like neurotypical people and other neurodiverse people, not every autistic person’s relationship with touch is exactly the same and the autistic person that may be thought to never want any touch may just not want certain types of touch at certain times or touch from certain people or they may like some types of affection, but not others. The autistic person you may think doesn’t want any touch at any point might just not consent to being touched in certain ways all the time; just as any other person wouldn’t necessarily be OK with any sort of touch you want to give them all the time.
It can be the context that defines how a person may react to being touched. If someone is touched when they aren’t prepared for it, such as if it surprised or startled them, they probably won’t welcome being touched, especially if they have issues with sensory overload. Their relationship with the person touching them may also affect their response. I think that most people wouldn’t consent to the same types of touch from a stranger as they would from someone they already know and that most of us wouldn’t consent to having the same sorts of touch we would accept or even welcome from a sexual partner, if they were from a friend, colleague, family member or anyone else.
I think the most important thing is to consider how someone may experience the touch you want to give them in a different way to the way you will. Someone might find what you thought of as a display of friendship too intimate or even sexual, showing why it’s so important to not assume everyone will experience touch in the same way as you. If you’re in doubt about what someone finds acceptable, I think it’s better to ask them verbally or in whatever way feels appropriate and clear or to just not touch them, if asking them doesn’t seem appropriate or possible, as I find it’s better to deprive yourself of the touch that could make you happy than to risk damaging someone else’s wellbeing by touching them without being sure you have their consent.