Touching Strangers

For whatever reason, many of my friends with autism impulsively touch other people, including strangers. For example, the dad of a teenager with autism was horrified recently when his son reached out to straighten the bottom of the jacket of a stranger in the grocery store. When the gentleman felt someone’s hand in an inappropriate spot, he turned around abruptly and spoke curtly to the youngster. The gentleman had no way of knowing, of course, that the tall teenager was non-verbal and diagnosed with autism. The dad just froze and was unable to think of anything to say.

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When we have a mortifying experience like this dad, we are tempted to just keep our youngster with autism at home so we aren’t embarrassed and so he doesn’t face arrest someday. This youngster is rather obsessed with having a symmetrical world, so he frequently reaches out to straighten objects, to put items in the correct place, and to adjust clothing that is out of place. His receptive language is somewhat limited, and he has a processing delay that makes responses to directions rather slow, even when paired with signs or cue cards or other cues. He does not seem able to generalize social stories nor to model the behavior issues. Although this youngster seems content and is usually compliant, it is difficult to break his train of thought once he notices something is out of place and works obsessively to straighten things out.

So, what can this dad do to prevent confrontations with strangers in the future? Of course, one option is to simply keep his son at home where he can stay out of trouble. But, that leads to isolation for both father and son. Here are few ideas.

(1) Out of reach. When I’m shopping with friends with autism who are compulsive touchers, I try to keep their hands occupied and to keep things out of reach. One strategy that works pretty well is to have them push the shopping cart. We stand side by side pushing the cart and I always monitor hands. I just quietly keep saying things like, “Thanks for keeping your hands to yourself” and “Good job keeping hands down.” If he begins to reach out to a person or an item, I gently put his hands back on the cart handle and say, “Remember, quiet hands.” If the person responds to visual cues, I take a picture of someone holding the handle of a shopping cart and put it on a cue card with the words “Quiet hands” at the bottom.

(2) Keep a card. Family members and others who take non-verbal folks with autism into public may want to keep some small business cards in their pocket for passing out to by-standers in the event of a meltdown or behavior incident in public. The card can say something like, “Thank you for your patience with my son. He is a wonderful young man who is non-verbal and diagnosed with autism. To find out more about autism, please check out this website:”

Have you ever encountered embarrassing situations in public? Send us your input and ideas for dealing with similar situations. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

Published on: May 8, 2008

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