Touch is an important component of many social experiences for many people. Autistic children commonly avoid social touch more than non-autistic peers. It is generally thought that this is due to autistic individuals experiencing hyper- or hyposensitivity of touch. While this is undoubtedly the case at least some of the time, studies of touch and autism have often involved decontextualised experimental settings or post-hoc reports on touch by autistic people or their common social interactants (i.e., parents). As such, there is very little research that looks at social touch in interactions involving autistic people and studies how it naturally occurs and how it is managed in the moment. Using multimodal Conversation Analysis, I analyse a collection of cases of social touch in the form of parents' cuddles or embraces with their autistic children. I demonstrate here what these cuddles can look like, how they can unfold over time with both autistic children and their parents mutually participate in building intimate sensorial moments. I also show more problematic moments where the child resists, abandons, or misunderstands a cuddle from their parent (or attempt to secure one) demonstrating that, in these cases, the trouble for the autistic children was not touch sensitivity but the prioritisation of courses of action that social touch would impede. As such the children display that the social touch is avoided or negatively evaluated due to its social nature, not its physical/sensational one. In demonstrating this I argue that not everything that might look like a sign of sensory difference is one.

Autism, Autonomy, and Touch Avoidance

"The performance of hugs in the family constitutes and embodies the current states of participants' relationships, indexing how members are attuned with one another." (Goodwin, 2020, p. 34).

Interpersonal touch in social interaction serves to build relationships with the self and others. To Thayer (1986, p. 8) "Touch is a signal in the communication process that, above all other communication channels, most directly and immediately escalates the balance of intimacy". By touching each other and allowing ourselves to be touched we come to a sensual understanding of who we are and who we are to each other. Interpersonal touch is thus the embodied instantiation of relationships between people and is suggested as a primal, initial form of intersubjectivity, called intercorporeality, through which we come to know ourselves and others not just as minds, but as full interacting bodies (Maclaren, 2014).

Autism has largely been considered a condition of the mind. This focus on the mind has occurred even though embodied sensory and motor differences/difficulties have been reported by autistic people in autobiographical reports (e.g., Grandin, 1992). There has been a lot of experimental research backing up the autobiographical reports suggesting that autistic people's sensory experiences (Kern et al., 2006) and their motor control (Fournier, Hass, Naik, Lodha, & Cauraugh, 2010) are different from non-autistic people's. This has led people to suggest that these embodied aspects should be considered central to autism (Fournier et al., 2010; Leary & Hill, 1996), or even that the social features of autism might be, at least in part, explained by these sensorimotor differences (Hannant, Tavassoli, & Cassidy, 2016).

Touch specifically has received attention as a sensory modality that is impacted in autistic individuals. Self-report studies of autistic adults (Lundqvist, 2015), parental self-report of autistic infants (Foss-Feig, Heacock, & Cascio, 2012; Silva, Schalock, & Gabrielsen, 2015; Ben-Sasson, Soto, Martinez-Pedraza, & Carter, 2013), observational studies of autistic infants (Baranek, 1999), and experimental studies (Blakemore et al., 2006; Cascio et al., 2008) demonstrate that autistic people experience tactile stimulation differently from non-autistic individuals. The nature of this difference is debated, with different studies showing systematic hyperresponsivity (Blakemore, et al., 2006; Cascio, et al., 2008) and hyporesponsivity (Foss-Feig, Heacock, & Cascio, 2012). As well, these differences in tactile sensation are not general within autistic individuals; different kinds of touch at different locations produce different profiles of response in autistic people compared to non-autistic people. For example, Cascio et al. (2008) found autistic participants were hyperresponsive to vibrational touch on their forearms compared to their palms and Blakemore et al. (2006) found that autistic participants were hyperresponsive to high frequency vibrational touch but had a similar response to lower frequency vibration as non-autistic participants. In sum, research suggests that different tactile sensitivity is a common feature of autism.

Not only do autistic people appear to experience touch differently from non-autistic people, it is argued that this sensory difference is related to autistic people's social differences and/or difficulties. Lundqvist (2015) found that touch hyperresponsiveness ratings mediated social difficulties ratings, and Mammen et al. (2015) found infants' avoidance of touch at nine months of age predicted parent-reported autism-related behaviour at 18 months of age. Neurological studies have found a reduction in volume of the C-Tactile afferent nerve fibres (CT-afferents) thought to conduct signals for social touch in a small sample of autistic children (Silva, & Schalock, 2016), as well as abnormal perception of touch and pain in body areas more highly innervated by CT-afferents compared to those less so (Riquelme, Hatem, & Montoya, 2015). Cognitive neuroscience studies have indicated that regions of the brain thought to be associated with social-emotional information processing show reduced response to stimulation of CT-afferents in autistic people's brains than in non-autistic controls (Kaiser et al., 2015), and also that autistic individuals' brains produce electroencephalographic makers of vigilance in response to perception of social touch and this signals correlated with their reported aversion of touch (Peled-Avron, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2017). The results of these studies suggest that not only do autistic people experience touch differently from non-autistic people, their experience of touch is strongly related to their experiences of and abilities in social interaction.

Considering this evidence for autistic people's different experience of touch, it is no wonder that autistic children may avoid touch or only engage in touch under certain conditions. It has been reported that autistic children engage in cuddles less than non-autistic peers (Baranek, 1999). As well, parents report that they struggle with expressing affection with their autistic children due to their aversion to touch (while recognising those same children can be physically affectionate on their own terms; Cullen, & Barlow, 2002), and parents generally rate their autistic children as less cuddly than others (Vostanis, et al., 1998; Clifford et al., 2012). What these results suggest is that autistic people's different, and commonly aversive, experience of touch is not just co-occurring with social difficulties, it contributes to them behaving in ways that appear disordered or different from others by their parents.

Touch, Autonomy, and Neurodiversity

Autistic peoples' aversion to social touch is commonly understood as a consequence of differences in touch sensitivity in autistic people (Smirni, et al., 2019; Hilton, et al., 2010). Autobiographical reports from autistic people describe their sensory sensitivity in general as something that can impede typical behavioural engagement with activities or people (Jones, Quigny, Huws, 2003; Grandin 1992). As well as this, the link between touch sensitivity and social touch aversion is strengthened by neuroscientific research into the nervous pathways and brain regions claimed to be involved in social touch, with this research showing that autistic individuals have ostensive "abnormalities" compared to typical individuals in these anatomical domains (Cascio et al., 2008; Silva, & Schalock, 2016).

There is a problem with attributing autistic people's touch aversion to differences in sensory experience resulting from neural differences. Such an attribution removes autistic people's agency in directing what happens to their bodies. By arguing that a given autistic person is avoiding being touched by someone because their neurology causes them to feel touch uncomfortably, you remove from consideration the possibility that the autistic individual just does not want to be touched (by that person, or in that place, or at that time, et cetera).

Struggles over bodily (and behavioural) autonomy have been a central theme in the history of autism and neurodiversity in general. Autistic people's autonomy has been argued to be hampered by denial of both positive and negative liberty (Späth, & Jongsma, 2020). Positive liberty refers to the capacity to freely direct one's life (i.e., one's thoughts, feelings, interests, and actions), while negative liberty refers to freedom from interference impeding one's capacity to direct one's life. An example of the denial of bother liberties is parents' and professionals' application of applied behaviour analytic techniques in order to halt an autistic person's behaviour (e.g., to extinguish stimming behaviours) or change autistic people's behaviour (e.g., how they respond in social situations). Denial of these liberties infringes on autistic people's right to autonomy by constraining their ability to pursue an authentic embodied life, encouraging them to think something is wrong with them, and increasing physical and psychological harm (Wilkenfeld, & McCarthy, 2020; Sandoval-Norton, Shkedy, & Shkedy, 2021; Dawson, 2004; Sparrow, 2016). To treat autistic people as if their touch aversion was merely the result of different (in comparison to neurotypicals) touch sensation is to deny their positive liberty by disallowing them the capacity to choose how they act in a given interaction.

This denial of positive liberty has acute consequences. Dan Goodley (2001) described how conceiving of impairment (in his case, intellectual disability) as natural and a property of the individual allowed practitioners to see so-called maladaptive behaviour as straightforwardly reflecting "underlying ('organic') individual deficiency" (p. 213) which then justified certain treatments of the individual, their behaviour, and their bodies (like applied behaviour analytic conversion therapy; Gibson, & Douglas, 2018). Neurodivergent people and those with other neurologically based disabilities commonly suffer threats against, or actual loss of, bodily autonomy on the basis of people presuming their conduct is the result of claimed underlying deficiencies. In a study of an aphasic man's interactional competence, Goodwin (1995) explained that in hospital the man's catheter was fitted inappropriately but his verbal and embodied protests were rejected as the symptomatic product of his neurological damage. As such he was in pain for days before it was corrected. Even as a verbal autistic person, Melanie Yergeau (2013) has written of the 'narrative of neurological determinism" (para. 31) with which doctors during her hospitalisation conferred "any and all agency to my supposed disembodiment, or my supposed disenmindment" (para. 31).

The consequences of the denial of liberty constitute, or at least contribute, to the disablement of autistic people. The neurodiversity movement, and the academic fields of disability studies and neurodiversity studies, aim to deconstruct the presumed inherent disability in conditions like autism, to "problematise neurotypical domination" (Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, Stenning, & Chown, 2020, p. 2). One of the ways this is done is by drawing on social models of disability (Oliver, 1990, Goodley, 2016) to show how many of the disabling features of these conditions are the result of their participation in a society that does not cater to their unique ways of engaging with the world, or is in fact actively hostile to them. Neurodiversity scholar Damian Milton (2012, 2013) developed the notion of the double empathy problem to explain part of the social disablement of autistic people. This notion recognises that it is not just autistic people who fail to appropriately comprehend, and engage with, neurotypical people; neurotypical people also struggle to understand autistics. This mutual difficulty in intelligibility is ultimately managed via the hegemonic dominance of neurotypical ways of understanding behaviour. This hegemony involves the tendency to explain autistic people's behaviour in terms of symptoms of a condition and reassignment of agency to a disordered nervous system. An alternative to this dismissal of agency is to give autistic people the benefit of the doubt as to the meaning of their behaviour (as one would with anyone else). In the current case this would mean considering autistic people's resistance against, or avoidance of, a cuddle (or some other touch) as a motivated, intentional, agentic choice, rather than just the reactive response to a sensory experience.

This paper gives both autistic children and their family members the benefit of the doubt about the meaning of their behaviours through the use of conversation analysis. As a methodology, conversation analysis takes for granted that social actors are competent interactional participants actively making sense of their own and each other's behaviour. Through analyses of naturally occurring social touch (i.e., cuddles) between autistic children and their family members, some differences between cuddles that are mutually engaged in and those that are resisted or abandoned will be documented and discussed. The aim in doing this is to show that, at least some of the time, social touch aversion by autistic children is better understood in terms of their assertion of autonomy and resistance against action that would constrain it (i.e., denials of negative liberty). It is not claimed here that all cases of social touch aversion are like this, nor are differences in sensory experiences of touch denied. However, close analysis of the sequential unfolding of cuddles between the family members in my data will demonstrate how the presumption that autistic children avoid touch due to internal sensory experience lacks nuance. The following section will explain the conversation analytic approach to studying touch in social interaction.

Touch in Social Interaction

While the literature of autism and touch is wide (and growing), it only provides certain perspectives on the issue. The above referenced literature provides insights based on brain functioning, self- and parent-report, observation and behaviour tallying/coding, but it does not study touch as it happens in naturally occurring social interaction. Social interactional research using conversation analysis documents the moment-to-moment unfolding of social behaviour and analysing social interactants' use of different resources (like language, gesture/posture, bodily position, and touch) to accomplish some ongoing course of social action. Where experiments and scales provide snapshots of behaviour, and interviews and behaviour coding rely on decontextualised, post hoc explanations, conversation analytic research aims to explain how social action happens from the perspective of the people doing.

To conversation analysts, social interaction is organised around the accomplishment of social action (Schegloff, 1995). Goodwin (2013) described all the different resources people have for designing their actions at any time (i.e., language, gesture, bodily configurations in space, uses of objects et cetera) as different semiotic fields which are themselves laminated together in order to produce the contextual configuration which is oriented to, and attended to by, one's interacts. Touch and embodied configuration are thus to be read with consideration of their lamination into a contextual configuration with other semiotic fields in order to understand their meaning.

Interactional research has begun to look at the significance of touch as a resource for social interaction by studying when and how touch happens in naturally occurring interaction. While this literature is currently limited, it is growing and has shown touch to be an important resource in the construction of action in a variety of different contexts including in reference to other's or ones on body parts in medical contexts (Nishizaka, 2007, 2011), facilitating or directing people's behaviour in both health-care and child-care/parent-child interactions (Cekaite, 2010, 2016; Marstrand & Svennevig, 2018), providing comfort and soothing children (Cekaite & Bergnehr, 2018; Cekaite & Kvist Holm, 2017; Goodwin, 2017; Kupetz, 2019), and escalating conflict (Whitehead, Bowman, & Raymond, 2018). That interpersonal touch can have a role in such a variety of different actions and contexts demonstrates Goodwin's (2013) claim of the lamination of semiotic fields. The overall contextual configuration provides context to these different touches and helps us produce touch with recognisably different meanings in situ.

Parent-Child Interaction and Touch

Much of the systematic social interactional research on touch between adults and children has focused on direction and comforting. Direction refers to actions launched in order to get someone to do something (Goodwin, 2006) alongside verbal directives, like requests and imperatives, direction can be accomplished through touch. Cekaite (2010) demonstrated how parents can use a touch from behind to shepherd children towards locations and activities. Positioning themselves behind the child places the adult in an unequal position of power over the child as they have access to the child's body while the child has no access to the parent's for similar control or resistance. Relatedly, parents can use touch to manipulate and modify their children's engagement in different actions or with different aspects of the local interactional ecology (Cekaite, 2016). These different engagements are called participation frameworks (Goodwin, 2000). By constraining the motility of the child parents can guide their child's attention on a singular participation framework, or by sustaining touch in multi-action contexts parents can manage the multiple participation frameworks they and their children are in (Cekaite, 2016).

Parents also utilise touch in organising their comforting or soothing of upset children (Cekaite, & Kvist Holm, 2017; Cekaite, & Bergnehr, 2018; Kupetz, 2019). Crying-soothing sequences in which children display their upset and adults respond with soothing contact have been studied for the ways involved participants coordinate their bodies in the process of soothing (Cekaite, & Kvist Holm, 2017). Drawing on notions from Adam Kendon (1990) on embodied organisation in participation, Cekaite and Kvist Holm (2017) describe how different embodied formations afford and constrict activity and thus promote intimacy between adult and child. These formations range from the head-to-head (or H-) formation, the partial embrace, and the face-to-face formation. The H-formation constrains the upset child's engagement with other activities such that they are wholly engaged in the intercorporeal experience, and once a certain level of soothing is achieved, adults can shift their formation into a partial embrace of a face-to-fact one in moves towards shifting from upset to normal engagement in other activities (Cekaite, & Kvist Holm, 2017). As well as this, affectionate touch is used by adults to prompt children into reciprocal affection (Cekaite, & Bergnehr, 2018).

The Current Study

This study has a couple of main aims. The first is to describe some of the ways that cuddles as affectionate touch are mutually engaged in, and managed sequentially, by autistic children and their family members in my data. The second aim is to describe some of the ways that cuddles are resisted, avoided, or misaligned with by the children. The analyses of these cuddles support the accomplishment of the third aim, to propose that at least some affectionate touch avoidance by autistic children is the result of their assertion of autonomy in directing their own conduct.


The cases analysed here were selected from a corpus of five hours of video-recorded interactions between members of four families with autistic children. Families were recruited through the use of a flyer seeking participation from families with at least one child formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Recruited families were given two video cameras each for periods from one to three weeks long and asked to record any interactions between the autistic child and other members of the family. Participants were advised they only had to record what they felt comfortable with submitting for research and they were given the opportunity to review and delete content they did not want to share for the research. The project was approved by the Victoria University of Wellington School of Psychology Ethics Committee (Ethics Application ID: 0000025632) and three of the families gave their consent to have non-anonymised images used in published transcripts.

The reasons for collecting data in this way are two-fold. The first reason is that allowing the families to record themselves and select the recordings they wished to share for analysis preserved the autonomy and privacy of the families as research participants. It is possible that, as a result of the decision to leave data collection up to the participant families themselves, the recordings provided may be skewed in terms of the nature of their social interactions and practices within them. This, however, does not impact the analytic claims of this research as the aim here is only to document and describe the practices employed and not to speak in general terms about the tendencies of autistic children and their families in social interaction.

The second reason for leaving recording to the families was that it removed the possibility that I could become a participant in ongoing social interaction. The primary reason for this was that I aimed to collect data that would pass the unwell social scientist test as well as possible (Potter, and Shaw, 2018). For data to pass this test, it needs to be data that could have existed had the researcher been unwell and not turned up for data collection; in other words, naturalistic data. Removing myself from the interactional scene meant that activity in these households could proceed as close to how it normally would without the research being conducted. It is important to note the participants were still aware of being recorded, which may have impacted their tendency to act as naturally as possible (see Duranti, 1997; and Mondada, 2006). Participants did, at times, orient to the cameras recording to them; however, they still conducted their normal, everyday, household tasks (as they commonly do in such recorded data; Duranti, 1997). Leaving recording to participants in this way has been recommended by Laurier and Philo (2006) and has been used in conversation analytic studies of autism (Wootton, 1999; Sterponi, & Shankey, 2014; Rendle-Short, Wilkinson, & Danby, 2015).

Initially, the recordings were scoured for cases of (at least) partial embrace. This resulted in twelve cases. These twelve cases were all transcribed. Talk was transcribed using Jeffersonian transcription conventions standard in conversation analysis (Hepburn & Bolden, 2017) and embodied conduct was transcribed using multimodal transcription conventions (Mondada, 2016). Analysis of interactions was conducted utilising conversation analysis. Conversation analysis is an inductive method by which naturally-occurring talk and bodily conduct in social interaction is analysed for how it sequentially produces social action, specifically by looking at the details of construction and sequential organisation of interactional moves (see Sidnell & Stivers, 2013 for an overview). A key feature of conversation analysis is the focus on the participants' displayed understandings of the social interactions they are party to. Rather than analysts relying on their own interpretations of what interactional participants mean by what they say or do or how they understand what is occurring, analysts focus on the participants' displayed understandings of the interaction. These understandings are made visible to analysts (and the other interactional participants) in the responsive moves they make. Consider, for example, if someone were to respond "ten thirty" to someone else saying "can you tell me the time?", that response shows that the speaker understood the question as a request for information, and not just a request for information on their ability to tell the time, but to actually provide the time. This way of looking at responsive turns to understand how a participant understands their situation is called the next turn proof procedure (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). The point of analysing not just what participants do or say but when they say it (i.e., in response to what) is to get at the fundamental analytic issue: what is that now? (Schegloff, & Sacks, 1973).


The following analyses are organised into two sections. The first section will analyse two cases in which children engage non-problematically in cuddles with their parents. One is a cuddle initiated by the child, the other is a cuddle initiated by the parent. The second section will analyse three cases of problematic cuddles. One case will show a child initially resisting, delaying, and then engaging in a cuddle. The second will show that child resisting before being non-consensually embraced into a cuddle and then ultimately struggling out of the cuddle. The last will show a case of what looks like the child rejecting a cuddle but is actually a case of misalignment between mother's and child's courses of action.

Straightforward Cuddles

In this section, I will present analyses of two straightforward cuddles. The first case is an example of a cuddle done for its own sake (i.e., as a cuddle) initiated by the child. The second case is an example of a cuddle done in the service of another activity (i.e., playing a riddle game together) initiated by the mother. Both of these cuddles are engaged in non-problematically by the child. Both cuddles are also sequentially situated between courses of other action (i.e., they are not interruptive of the child's ongoing course of action). This will be important for understanding some of the problematic cuddles I will analyse later.

This first analysis examines a case of a cuddle initiated by an autism-diagnosed child. Not only does the child initiate the cuddle with his parent, he shows a sophisticated understanding of the resources available to him and Dad (e.g., turn-taking and sequence orientations as well as bodily/gestural resources) for structuring this interactional moment. Prior to this extract, Magnus has voiced his concern that Dad may die soon due to an injury he sustained. Dad has been reassuring him that he is not going to die. Magnus initiates the cuddle after Dad issues the upshot of this reassurance talk.

Extract 1

Written analysis of a strightforward cuddle.

Magnus initiates the cuddle at a point where Dad's completion of not just his current turn, but his current course of action is projectable. At line 1, Dad states he wants to live to see his grandchildren. This is an indication of how long he intends to live as the oldest of his children (Magnus) is 11 years old at this point; grandchildren are temporally distant. This move is not taken up by Magnus at line 3. So-prefacing is a way by which a speaker can mark their upcoming talk as the upshot of previous discussion (Raymond, 2004). It is not until after Dad provides his so-prefaced upshot that Magnus puts his hand to Dad's arm. This movement occurs concurrently with Dad's next turn constructional unit "I'm not going anywhere." This is a way by which Magnus uses his body to demonstrate his understanding that "so (0.7) don't panic." is an upshot and as such Dad is coming to the end of his current course of action. This would warrant Magnus's transition to a new activity (in this case, cuddling and verbalising affection). However, his touch is not disruptive of Dad's continued talking. Magnus himself does not talk until after Dad completes his current turn constructional unit. How do we know that Magnus was gearing up towards a new course of action? In line 5, after Dad has finished speaking, Magnus says "dad," addressing him. In dyadic interaction, address terms are redundant and are thus marked. Rendle-Short (2007) argues that pre-positioned address terms used by journalists and in political interviews are used to structure the interview, managing transition from one topic to the next. At line 5, Magnus shows he is switching courses of action by re-engaging Dad's reciprocity as if it were for the first time. Up to this point Magnus has organised his upcoming cuddle in relation to Dad's talk and his projection of when and how it will end, allowing him to prepare his own new course of action.

The cuddle is designed as a space for affection to occur within. At line 7, Dad responds to Magnus addressing him and at line 8, Magnus wraps his arm around Dad's shoulder and moves in for a hug, concurrently saying "°love you.°." Not only is affection verbalised, the cuddle here is constructed via a head-to-head formation. In soothing sequences, a head-to-head formation is employed as it physically engulfs the upset child's attention, constraining the child's capacity for engagement in any other activity that they embrace (Cekaite, & Holm Kvist, 2017). This cuddle is not in the context of soothing, however, it still involves the production of intercorporeality (Goodwin, 2017) whereby bodies are entwined with little possibility for distraction from that fact. This embodied configuration contributes to the affectivity and intimacy of the cuddle. Dad reciprocates, wrapping his own arm around Magnus and responding "love you too (magnus)", ratifying and contributing to this intimate moment.

While Magnus sensitively negotiated the entrance into a cuddle between him and Dad, Dad manages their mutual disengagement from the cuddle and transitions into the next activity. He does this using an embodied practice (i.e., patting) that Magnus comprehends. When Dad finishes his turn constructional unit, there is a silence, during which Dad pats Magnus twice. These pats, coming after the reciprocation of affection, coordinate the mutual disengagement from the cuddle. The patting is understood as a signal to end the cuddle due to its placement. Rather than at the beginning of, or during, Dad's reciprocal "love you too" (where it could be understood as part of the affection), the pat comes after he has reciprocated his affection which closes an adjacency pair sequence. There is no specifically selected next speaker or next course of action. As such the pat almost literally punctuates the cuddle, providing a space where both parties know it would be appropriate to withdraw. After the 0.6 second silence and the two pats, Magnus and Dad withdraw from the cuddle at the same time.

In this second example, I analyse an example of a cuddle initiated by someone other than the autism-diagnosed child –the mother. As well as differing from the previous case in terms of who initiated it, it is also different in terms of the concurrent action. While the previous cuddle was a cuddle in its own right, this is a cuddle that also serves as the enduring corporeal organisation for a longer course of interaction; playing a game together.

Extract 2

Written analysis of a strightforward cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

This cuddle is set up in a transition point between activities and directly places Trevor in engagement with the new course of action. Jefferson (1993) discusses the kinds of things that tend to come before topic changes, identifying a speaker's commentary on what has been discussed so far as one of those things. Mum uses her evaluation of the art and story discussed with Trevor as a place to transition to a new activity. Following a 1.4 second silence where Trevor could have addressed Mum's evaluation of his picture and story, Mum utters ">alright<" at line 4. The silence demonstrates Trevor's orientation to the embodied action at hand and dismissal of the previous topic and Mum's utterance verbally marks the transition to a new course of action, as it is not designed as sequentially related to the prior topic or her prior turn (Maynard, 1980). Ultimately this embrace is initiated in such a way that both participants co-construct it as a transition between courses of action, collaboratively designing the cuddle as something mutually engaged in by them both.

This cuddle, having been initiated in this transition between activities, is designed to serve as the environment for further action, rather than a cuddle in its own right. Mum initiates the cuddle by grabbing Trevor's arm and pulling/directing him onto the couch at line 2. Trevor complies with this, stepping up onto the couch. At line 4 Mum uses her left arm to hold Trevor by the side and guide his body around as he finds a place to sit (seen in fig 1) and at line 5 Mum wraps her right arm around Trevor's shoulder, holding him close to her. Mum has the cards for the riddle game they are about to play in her right hand and so her arm being wrapped around Trevor as it is in figure 2 makes the game mutually orientable by Mum and Trevor. Unlike in Extract 1 where the cuddle is designed as a head-to-head formation between Magnus and Dad, this cuddle is designed such that they can be in contact but still mutually engage in a shared object of activity present in front of both of them. Their sitting together on the couch precluded them from engaging in a face-to-face formation as described by Cekaite, & Kvist Holm (2017), however Mum's arm wrapped around Trevor's shoulder constitutes the same kind of physically close, mutual touch and mutual engagement in a side-to-side formation that the face-to-face would otherwise provide.

These two cases demonstrate the ways that cuddles were positively engaged in between autistic children and their family members. What is seen in these cases is how cuddles are accomplished as mutually engaged-in events even when the initiation of the cuddle is not necessarily mutual. In Extract 1, Magnus initiated the cuddle and he did so in such a way that showed his understanding of when it would be appropriate to change courses of action in interacting with his Dad. In Extract 2, Mum initiated the cuddle, as well at a place where a change in course of action was available and appropriate, and Trevor complied with her initiation. These cases represent the cuddles in my data that were entered into non-problematically. The next section will focus on some examples of cuddles that were not so straightforward and suggest that this is because they involved some amount of disruption to ongoing courses of action and accompanying misalignment.

Problematic Cuddles

The extracts presented here demonstrate cases of autistic children in my data avoiding cuddles from their parents, described here as problematic as they constituted sites of trouble to be managed by the child and their interlocutors. While all children engaged in cuddles nonproblematically, not all cuddles were without trouble. The following extracts are presented to demonstrate what those troubles were and how they were managed, providing evidence that not all cuddle resistance by children diagnosed with autism can be described via symptomatic touch sensitivity, but instead based on the child's prioritisation of different courses of activity.

In Extract 3, Aidan is leaving home for school. He has just previously heard the time and from Francesca and recognises he is late. His rushing to go leaves only minimal time for extended farewells, which Francesca chooses to utilise.

Extract 3

Written analysis of a problematic cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.
Written analysis of a problematic cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

In Extract 3, Francesca requests a cuddle, thus disrupting Aidan's leaving for school. Aidan says goodbye at line 1 as he is walking towards the front door. Francesca reciprocates the goodbye before latching quickly her request for a cuddle at line 2. This request is made by using a conventionalised request form (i.e.,"can I have…). Conventional request forms have been shown to signal the speakers claimed entitlement to the thing requested (Curl & Drew, 2008). Thus, Francesca's request claims entitlement to a cuddle before her child leaves for school. In response to this request we can see Aidan immediately stops, turns around, and walks towards Francesca. This embodied response is the preferred response to a request for some activity (Kent, 2012), however, he also utters a sound "bu-" at line 4 which sounds like a cut off "but" on its way to verbalising resistance. While Aidan does what is asked of him, he does not do so unproblematically.

The request for the cuddle undoes Aidan's goodbye and reinitialises possibilities for further action between the request and the cuddle itself. At line 5, Francesca wiggles her arms and hums concurrently at line 7. This demonstrates her receptivity for the upcoming cuddle. However, while Francesca displays her excited expectation, Aidan takes his time before moving into the cuddle as he is still struggling to get his left arm through the strap of his backpack. While he does this, he takes the space available to him to state how he wants to bring a Lego toy of his to school at line 6. As Aidan says this, Francesca shuts down her excited anticipation by moving her hands to her head and manipulating her hair; she is no longer immediately anticipating the cuddle as Aidan appears to have moved into a different course of action, at least momentarily. This statement of desire is responded to as an entitled request and Francesca denies it at line 9 and accounts for the denial.

During Francesca's denial of Aidan's request is when the embrace itself occurs. Aidan leans forward and lays his head on Francesca's chest. After wrapping her arms around Aidan, Francesca utilises the interactional space this configuration affords her by giving a further explanation for the account for her denial bounded by two kisses. The first kiss is small and serves as a tactile indication to Aidan that he is the recipient of Francesca's upcoming talk. This is required as his embrace configuration does not allow him to see Francesca talking. After this first kiss, she says "plus we don't want it to get lost." at line 16 further explaining why the Lego stays at home. This account is then punctuated by a second, much more exaggerated kiss. This kisses exaggeration distinguishes it from the first – it is done as a kiss and not as something else, like the previous kiss — and Aidan treats it as marking the end of the embrace as after this kiss is when he stands up.

Two main features of this case are worth highlighting. Firstly, Aidan verbalises (however minimally) resistance to the cuddle. Despite ultimately engaging in the cuddle, Aidan's resistant "bu-" demonstrates his interpretation of the cuddle request as disruptive of his course of action. This resistance is warranted by the fact that has already made his course of action (i.e., leaving for school) clear. Secondly, after he has abandoned his course of action for giving Francesca a cuddle, he utilises the re-opened interactional space to engage in other activities, delaying the cuddle. This delay is recognised by Francesca, but the cuddle ultimately occurs. This shows that, to Aidan, it was not the cuddle per se that was problematic here, but the fact that it disrupted his ongoing activity. Once he was then engaged in the new course of action, it was no longer a problem.

This next case demonstrates what appears to be a child resisting a cuddle but is actually a child misunderstanding that a cuddle is what is being proposed. In the minutes leading up to Extract 6 three year old Raphael and seven year old Cecilia have been playing together with some engagement from their Mum. The game has largely consisted of chasing and tickling. Of note is that when Mum tickled Raphael and when Raphael tickled Cecilia the tickling has been predominantly focused on the back. This will be significant later in the analysis.

Extract 4

Written analysis of a problematic cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

Extract 4 demonstrates how the entrance into affectionate touch is hindered by the local context. Until this point, Mum, Raphael, and Cecilia have been engaged in a chasing and tickling game and this context produces a misalignment in action between Mum and Raphael. At line 1 Mum beckons Raphael with "tickle tickle" and Raphael walks towards Mum at line 3. As he reaches Mum, Cecilia begins shouting " oh ^no no no [no no no] no:.^" at line 4 and this co-occurs with Mum's raising of her hands to receive Raphael and her seemingly re-specifying her activity from tickling (implied by her beckoning at line 1) to now a cuddle at line 6. Cecilia's shouting is much louder than mum's "cuddle?" and it appears to have drowned Mum out in Raphael's ears as he seems still to be playing the tickle game with her. After Mum's arms are raised and she requests a cuddle, Raphael turns away at the last minute and begins to walk away from mum, running to the other side of the lounge. As he runs he is looking behind him at Mum; he is still playing the chasing and tickling game. In this extract, Mum's and Raphael's activities are misaligned. Mum changes course from initiating one activity (tickling) to another (cuddle) but the change is conducted in such a time and place (in the midst of Cecilia's overlapping speech) that Raphael is not party to the change and acts in accordance with the first initiated activity. At this point, the context of play has resulted in a difficulty transitioning into another activity.

Extract 5

Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

Where Extract 4 showed how the local context of play disrupted a cuddle in the making, Extract 5 shows how Mum and Raphael are able to manage themselves and ultimately achieve their affectionate contact (despite complications). After Raphael has been playfully avoiding Mum on the other side of the room, Mum calls him over at line 21 with "^come," and at the same time raising her arms and beckoning Raphael with her hands. At line 23 Raphael speaks. Much of Raphael's speech is rather high-pitched and unclear. It sounds like he says "^I will" verbally acquiescing, consistent with his embodied response of walking towards Mum. As Raphael walks towards her, Mum raises her arms again before dropping them towards Raphael's side. Ultimately, Mum holds Raphael's head and gives him a kiss. While this is an achievement of affectionate contact, it is not the cuddle Mum initially seemed to be seeking. Remember from earlier that Raphael does not seem to have heard that Mum was after a cuddle as her switch from tickles to cuddles was talked over by Cecilia. As Raphael comes to Mum he bends over which makes his back more easily reachable by Mum. Mum previously had been tickling his back in their tickling/chasing game. Raphael presents his back to Mum in order that she resume tickling like she did in their game earlier because as far as he knows, they are both still playing the game and Mum was still teasing him with tickle threats. Mum's dropping and sudden raising of her arms to holding Raphael's head and giving him a kiss are in-the-moment management of the affordances of Raphael's bodily position as presented to her. This case shows how two parties to affectionate touch in interaction can be misaligned in their action on the basis of their previous actions and broader activity context and address that misalignment on the go so that an approximation of the originally intended action can be accomplished. Here, Mum and Raphael are working under different presumptions of what kind of affectionate touch is on offer based on each other's understanding of the play context they are in (where Raphael perpetuates play after Mum has concluded it) and yet are still able to coordinate such that affection touch is achieved.

The next extracts show another cuddle engaged in by Francesca and Aidan. Immediately prior to these extracts, Aidan has expressed frustration with his computer. Francesca has asked to know what is wrong so that she can try and help and Aidan has rejected her requests instead asking for an apple. Francesca has said that him having an apple is contingent on him coming to her first (ostensibly for the upcoming cuddle and discussion).

Extract 6

Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.
Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

This initial part of the cuddle is oriented towards Aidan's current emotional state and remedying it, specifically by eliciting displays of positive affect from Aidan. At line 1, Aidan verbalises that he is rejecting Francesca's demand that he come to her and is, in fact, on his way to the kitchen for the apple he asked for. Despite this rejection of close contact, Francesca scoops him up as he walks past. Francesca brings Aidan up into a head-to-head formation (Cekaite, & Kvist Holm, 2017). Francesca is thus in control of a participation framework between her and Aidan in which Aidan has little choice but to be the recipient to Francesca's action. Francesca's actions consisted of tickling and talking. The tickling serves to elicit positive affective displays from Aidan, which successfully occurs in lines 3, 5, 7, and 13 where Aidan is laughing. Francesca's talk seems, on the surface, to be inapposite. At lines 2 and 4 she produces repeated "no"s, rejecting and negatively assessing Aidan's laughter, and at lines 6 and 8 she directs Aidan to stop laughter and stop being happy. Considering Goodwin's (2013) notion of lamination, Francesca's overall action must be understood with reference to all semiotic resources she employs. By considering her talk laminated by her tickling, Francesca's directives and rejections of Aidan's positivity are recognisable as teasing and playful. Exactly their inappositeness is what makes them sound like playful teasing rather than genuine directives. During this, Aidan, despite having resisted Francesca's attempts to help with his frustration, is (at this point) fully engaged in the ongoing haptic experience. Though this is not to last, as seen in Extract 7.

Extract 7

Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.
Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of a woman and a young child.

Extract 7 follows immediately from Extract 6. Here, Francesca alters course, turning the cuddle from one primarily oriented to modulating Aidan's affective state to a locus of socialisation into emotional regulation, teaching Aidan how he could manage future emotional incidents. Where Francesca is primarily oriented towards teaching emotion regulation, Aidan shows his concern with how this whole event is to be understood. The tickle game winds down as Aidan rests his head in the crook of Francesca's elbow at line 1. This shift in position brings the two into a face-to-face position. This transition to face-to-face position marks Aidan's re-entrance into the role of possible speaker (Cekaite, & Kvist Holm, 2017), and presages Francesca's expectation of talk from him. At line 3, Francesca assesses cuddles' ability to make Aidan happy. At line 5, Francesca provides the advice that Aidan needs to remember that cuddles make him feel better when he is frustrated. As soon as she voices "cuddles" at line 7, Aidan comes in rejecting the formulation of cuddles as the thing that works and specifying that it is, in fact, tickles (and only tickles) that works at lines 10 and 12.

Francesca provides more advice to Aidan about what to do when frustrated and continues to formulate the significant helping component as cuddles. This continuing rejection of Aidan's formulation (that it is just tickles that works), prompts Aidan to ignore her advice and repeat his correction while struggling to withdraw from the cuddle. At lines 14-25, Francesca describes a hypothetical future scenario like what happened earlier (where Aidan is getting frustrated by his computer not cooperating) and suggests in such a scenario Aidan should go to someone and get "cuddles and some tickles" (line 23). She finishes this extended turn by attempting to elicit Aidan's agreement that it (ostensibly getting cuddles and tickles) helps. Instead of agreeing, Aidan overlaps at the end of her turn to say "no just tickles." at line 26. At the same time he begins talking, Aidan struggles free of Francesca. While Aidan is withdrawing from the cuddle, Francesca returns to her initial questioning regarding what was going wrong in the first place but this is ignored entirely by Aidan and she drops it. For Aidan, the cuddle was the environment within which he was not being listened to.

The last case I will show demonstrates a cuddle between siblings, both of whom have received autism diagnoses, and one of whom is minimally verbal. While there is some initial misalignment this cuddle is ultimately brought on track with mutual engagement and it leads into a period of extended touch as the children play together. Up until the point transcribed below, the two children have been playing in the same room but independently of each other. Cecilia is playing with a dollhouse when Raphael approaches her for a cuddle.

Extract 8

Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of two young children.

In Extract 8, there is initial misalignment between the two siblings. While Cecilia is engaged playing with her toys, Raphael approaches her at line 1 before bending down to say "^^ c u:ddle:.^^" at line 4. It is unclear at this point whether this was designed as an announcement of Raphael's interest in a cuddle or request, or as an announcement that he was about to engage Cecilia in a cuddle, but what is clear is that he does not immediately engage in the cuddle. This suggests that whatever his turn was exactly designed as, it was at least a first pair part making a response from Cecilia relevant. This is where the initial misalignment occurs as Cecilia does not respond. The fact that Cecilia gives no response, rather than a negative evaluation of Raphael's request/announcement suggests that she is not resisting, she is just engaged in another course of action and prioritising attention on her play.

Extract 9

Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of two young children.
Written analysis of a cuddle with video stills of two young children.

Extract 9 shows how Raphael manages the non-response from his sister after his requesting/announcing a cuddle. After two and half seconds of delay, Raphael announces a cuddle again at line 3. This announcement proceeds from him standing up after his initial request/announcement and stepping behind Cecilia. Once in position behind her, Raphael speaks "^^cu:ddle::::::::::::::::.^^". Stribling, Rae, and Dickerson (2007) describe how a child diagnosed with autism is able to use resources like repeats in contexts where it is not clear that their interlocutor heard them. Raphael's turn is a repeat produced with long duration, possibly attending to this as a pursuit or a second issuing, oriented to the possibility that Cecilia missed it. As he produces this turn, Raphael raises his arms before bringing them down around Cecilia's shoulders. In this way he initiates the cuddle on line 3 (figures 6, 7, and 8).

Despite being engaged in a different activity and not taking up the cuddle as initially announced/offered, Cecilia accepts the cuddle and actively engages in it too. At line 4 of Extract 9, Cecilia wraps her right arm around Raphael's head, holding him tight to her shoulder (figure 9). This cuddle resembles a head-to-head formation (Cekaite, Kvist Holm, 2017) in that the two have pressed their heads close together, however it is a fundamentally different organisation employed here. Rather than each in front of the other, Raphael is standing behind Cecilia who is herself facing away from him. By coming at the cuddle this way, Raphael, as the one who initiated the cuddle, was able to embrace his sister in a way that did not impact, or reduced the impact of, her ability to continue doing what she was doing. In this way, Cecilia could engage with the cuddle, as she does, or continue using both arms to play with her toys and Raphael could still get his cuddle. Once Cecilia returns her right hand to the toys, Raphael stands up and at line 11 Cecilia asks whether Raphael wants to play with her. In this way, Cecilia does not just participate in the cuddle, but uses it as her own springboard to initiate extended affectionate touch and play activity.

The way this cuddle unfolds demonstrates that Raphael and Cecilia are both able to competently negotiate a cuddle in these difficult circumstances. This case shows how, even though the cuddle was initiated while Cecilia was engaged in some other action (which, as we've seen above can be a site of cuddle refusal), the cuddle was managed in such a way that it could occur while not being fundamentally disruptive to the course of action Cecilia was engaged in. As well, this case shows how Raphael oriented to the cuddle as naturally implicating someone else in his course of action. He did not just leap right into the cuddle with his sister but indicated that a cuddle was desired and incoming, providing Cecilia with an opportunity to engage willingly or resist. While, ultimately, Cecilia did not respond and Raphael initiated the cuddle anyway, the fact that he did it twice suggests he considered it relevant and important to rather than presume a cuddle would be welcome from the start.

All of the cases in this section have been provided to demonstrate some of the ways attempts by parents or siblings to engage in affectionate touch with their autistic family members might unfold in a less-than-straight-forward way. I have shown that looking at the local interactional context of an attempt to cuddle can aid in understanding why the cuddle might have been negatively evaluated (Extract 3), withheld (Extracts 4 and 5), or abandoned (Extracts 7 and 7). As well as these, I have shown how what starts off problematically can be mutually approved in the offing (Extract 8 and 9).


The previous extracts were presented to demonstrate some of the ways that physical affection (namely embraces or cuddles) is engaged in interactions involving autistic children and members of their family. In the first section, I gave examples of both a child- and parent-initiated cuddle and showed how they were collaboratively accomplished via non-verbal, embodied coordination. As well, I pointed out how these cuddles, that occurred with complete mutual engagement, were situated at boundaries between courses of action. In the second section, I gave examples of attempts at affectionate embraces that involved some problematic elements in the forms of protestation as well as physical resistance and escape from a cuddle in progress. It was pointed out that these problematic cuddles involved interruptive elements that disrupted or misaligned with the child's ongoing course of action, suggesting that the reason for these cuddles being oriented to as problematic by the children was their disruptive nature. Lastly, I demonstrated a case of two autistic siblings, engaging in a cuddle and showed how a minimally verbal autistic child showed a sensitivity to cuddles as something to be requested in the first instance and how the cuddle ultimately proceeded into engaged play between them.

While touch has been increasingly examined as a sensory domain that is differentially experienced by autistic and non-autistic people, affectionate touch and how autistic individuals manage their engagement with it within a course of unfolding social interaction has not been examined in detail. Studies on autistic people's experiences of touch have typically relied on methods which gather information on autistic people's responses to touch in decontextualized experimental settings (Blakemore, et al., 2006; Cascio, et al., 2008) or methods gathering post-hoc reports from autistic people themselves or their significant interactional partners (Vostanis, et al., 1998; Clifford et al., 2012). The impact of this is that our understanding of the intersection of touch and autism is focused primarily around touch as a sensory modality, ignoring that touch is also an embodied resource for doing social activity. The results of this study show how in the course of unfolding social interaction, touch is not just treated as a feeling but also as a space for a variety of activities; the mutual sharing of affection, engagement in a joint activity or game, showing who you are to others and who they are to you. At the same time, touch can also be something that disrupts or is otherwise unwelcome as a locus of social action. Touch is rightly more than just a sense; touch is a resource, an action, an environment, a relationship, a meaning.

Not only does this study show that affectionate touch plays a social role beyond just being a sensory experience for the individual being touched, it also shows how the rejection or avoidance of touch is not just about avoiding an unpleasant sensory experience. People explain autistic children's aversion to touch with reference to the idea that autistic people experience touch negatively (Smirni, et al., 2019; Hilton, et al., 2010). While I do not deny that the experience of certain kinds of touch is itself sensually aversive, the cases of touch aversion in my data show that it is not necessarily the case that autistic children's touch aversion or rejection should be seen as principally the result of "symptomatic" or different sensory experience. Instead, individual cases of touch aversion or rejection should be understood on it's own terms as something that arose within an unfolding social context. Touch aversion by autistic children can be driven by aspects of this social context (like the perceived disruptiveness of the touch to the child's own ongoing course of action) and touch aversion based on these extra-individual, social concerns should reasonably be understood and treated differently from touch aversion on the basis of sensory experience.

Studying autistic people's engagement with social touch as an embedded social phenomenon should encourage researchers to consider an interactional locus to many of the kinds of things that are generally considered individualised features of the autistic "condition". The results of this study demonstrate that, far from being just a thing that happens in individual autistic children, the experience and meaning of affectionate touch is negotiated by the parties involved and the children's aversion is not just a case of sensory discomfort that exists within their individual brains and experienced only by them.

The analyses presented here represent a collection of cases of affectionate touch as it occurred in my data. It is not intended to provide an account of affectionate touch management in all other interactions involving autistic children.

This study shows that with close interactional analysis, one can see how individual moments of touch aversion or rejection can be explained with reference to misalignment of the activities engaged in by parties or to a disruption to the autistic child's current course of action. This is not to say that autistic children never reject or resist affectionate touch on the basis of uncomfortable sensory experience. A further development of this line of research should investigate what cases of affectionate touch aversion based in sensory experience looks like and how that unpleasant sensory experience is recognisably the reason behind the touch aversion. The collection of cuddles that informed this study did not include any problematic affectionate touch cases that could not be understood with reference to misrecognition of action or orientation to the touch as disruptive. A larger collection of cuddles in more diverse interactional contexts might reveal a variety of other interactional spaces in which, and methods by which, autistic children negatively engage with touch or verbalise their reasons for resistance/rejection.


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Transcription Key and Multimodal Transcription Conventions

This key of transcription conventions is drawn from Hepburn and Bolden (2017).

[word]Onset and offset of overlapping speech
=Latched speech (continuing speech with no pause between)
.Turn-final, downward intonation
,Turn-final, slight rising intonation
?Turn-final, strong rising intonation
(.)Micropause (silence of less than one tenth or a second)
(1.2)Silences in seconds and tenths of seconds
WordIncreased stress
WORDIncreased volume
:Sound elongation
wor-Sound cut off
°word°Decreased volume
((word))Transcriber's commentary
(word)Possible/unclear hearing
>word<Quicker/temporally compressed speech

Transcription of multimodal conduct follows Mondada's (2016) conventions. Embodied conduct is positioned on its own lines beneath the co-occurring talk or silences. Onset and offset of embodied conduct is marked by a symbol corresponding to the actor performing it (* for adults, + for child, except in Extract 9 where * is used for Cecilia) on the line of talk during which the embodied conduct happens. When conduct continues across multiple lines, the —-> arrow is used to show this continuation until the corresponding conduct offset symbol. The temporal location of figures is marked on the lines of talk and in conduct lines with a # and the number of the figure.


8/25/2022: New images uploaded for all extracts.

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