Sometimes, someone will talk to you about a very emotional and/or difficult topic. In this scenario, you are supposed to give comfort to the person with whom you are talking.

As someone on the autism spectrum, I always find those kinds of situations very hard to deal with as I don't know what to do. Most of the time, I will simply just "freeze" and be unable to do anything.

If the other person is crying a lot, then I know that offering a hug would be appropriate. So, I just open my arm to suggest a hug and wait to know if the other person wants it or not.

But, if the other person isn't really crying, offering a hug feels like I would be "overreacting", especially if the other person doesn't really like to be touched. So, I would like to offer some comforting tap on the shoulder/arm instead.

If I could just ask:

Do you want me to tap your shoulder/arm in a comforting way?

Things would be simpler. However, I'm pretty sure asking something like that would be absolutely weird.

So, is there some non-verbal ways that I could ask this question?

I don't want to touch someone that doesn't want to be touched.


These situations are generally context dependent. Your relationship to/with the person makes a big difference in what would be expected or appropriate. If it's someone you already know well, there's more leeway than with someone you don't.

In either case, I'd caution you to consider that a comforting gesture is only really comforting if you're comfortable doing it. Being stiff or awkward about it will likely cause it to feel stiff or awkward for the recipient, so maybe just skip it.

If you are comfortable offering a physical reassurance or comfort, you can gauge whether the distressed person wants that by extending a hand, and waiting for a reaction. Not an open arm hug gesture, or extending your hand for a hand shake, but something sort of inbetween. Relaxed, unassuming, arm extended, palm up; sort of like an invitation to hold hands.

If this is something you're unsure about, you may want to consider listening and holding space, there's more than one way to be comforting. Find your strengths.


I don't know of any direct, non-verbal communication that gets at what you want to know. Further, I wouldn't say that this is something at which people not on the spectrum (or deep into territory considered neurotypical, I'm unclear on how the terminology is used here) are much good at. This is an interpersonal situation in which anyone can easily get it wrong.

The "standard" approach, in my observation, is to use light, brief contact at first and then gauge the response. Most people are generally prepared enough for a brief, light pat/squeeze on the shoulder or forearm (whatever is more easily reachable given how you are arranged).

Some people don't want that, and will say so or physically draw away from you. In either case, you have your answer-- no more contact. But the initial contact was mild, brief, and not anywhere intimate, so you're not likely to be scarring someone forever, or even meaningfully upsetting them.

Some people do want the contact, and may further it (lean into you, hug you, etc.). Others will just sit there as they were, and you won't have any indication that you are making them more or less comfortable, and you may (somewhat awkwardly) continue or (somewhat awkwardly) withdraw.

I think that it is very rare to encounter someone that will react very badly to being touched so tamely, will share something so personal with you, and not have already indicated to you (some way or other) their preferences to not be touched at all.

People as upset as those you are describing are probably not focusing too hard on you or on any signals you're sending or expecting to receive. If you are really uncomfortable and can't decide what would be appropriate, when in doubt, don't touch.

  • Hey, I fear I don't understand your last sentence "when in doubt, don't touch". Do you mean that not touching is better than touching and being rejected? Is that your personal opinion or do you have some backup I could read to understand this rule better? – Ælis Nov 27 '18 at 16:17
  • @Noon It's about what to do when you're not confident that you've picked up non-verbal signals correctly. If you really feel unsure whether or not touching would be appropriate, choosing not to touch is the "safe" option. The assumption being that you are concerned that the other person would not respond well to a touch, so you avoid the issue while still being able to offer verbal comfort. – Upper_Case Nov 27 '18 at 17:55
  • "while still being able to offer verbal comfort" -> That's a big assumption regarding my social skills. If I'm unable to be verbally comforting, what would you suggest I do? – Ælis Nov 27 '18 at 18:18
  • @Noon in those cases just being there and continuing to listen to them still counts for something, also see apaul's link on holding space in such a situation – BKlassen Nov 27 '18 at 18:40
  • @Noon Then offering whatever comforts you're able to. The main point being that touching someone that doesn't want to be touched --> bad outcome, while not touching someone that would be OK with/comforted by that touch --> less bad outcome. – Upper_Case Nov 27 '18 at 19:16

If the other person is crying a lot, then I know that offering a hug would be appropriate. So, I just open my arm to suggest a hug and wait to know if the other person wants it or not.

As a non-verbal cue, that is about all you can do. The problem is that everyone has a different reaction to being hugged. If you look at other questions on this site you will see that some people hate to be touched. Other people love to be touched. Very often this comes from their family upbringing.

My thoughts on an alternative

I personally would be more likely to simply listen to their problems without feeling the need to comment much. However if they were a friend and I suspected they would like a hug, I would simply say, "You look really upset. Do you want a hug?"

They can then say Yes or No according to how they are feeling at the time. Either way you have left the decision to them.

A useful phrase might be, "I'm not very good at these things but I'm listening" meaning that you don't know what to say but you are sympathetic. If they know about your autism and you think it is appropriate you could say, "Because of my autism, I don't know what to say but I am sympathetic and I am listening"

If you don't know what to say then I suggest it is better to ask non-judgemental questions. Here are some examples.

You look really sad. What are you unhappy about?

What is it about that, that makes you most unhappy?

I'm not sure I fully understand. Could you explain?

How are you feeling now?

Non-judgemental means that you don't impose your opinion - you ask for theirs.

Note: The above are only sample questions. Their purpose is for you to understand how the other person is feeling and why they are feeling that way. None of us can mind-read what another is thinking so we can only know by asking.

The person may say, "I don't feel like talking" in which case it is best to stop asking the above type of question. Maybe a good question at that point is, "Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?"

Finally, you don't have to do what they ask. If they ask for a hug then go ahead if you feel like giving it. If they ask you for something you don't want to do then you can say, "I'm not very good at that sort of thing but I'm here to give you moral support."


I have trained in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and something called Option Dialog. I have a lot of experience and of course I can't teach either here.

Asking non-judgemental questions is something of an art. I won't attempt to explain in detail.

There are two main versions of the Option Dialog(ue). They are similar. I have no financial or other connection with either. I make no recommendations and if you are interested I suggest learning from books and other printed matter rather than going on expensive courses.

  • 2
    The asker is asking about nonverbal communication- can you suggest anything that can be done non-verbally that expresses what you suggested (verbal communication)? – ElizB 23 hours ago
  • 1
    Hmm... I suppose this is really a frame challenge. I'm saying that there aren't any non-verbal cues that can be relied on - especially in these days of consent for everything. I'll add something at the beginning. – chasly from UK 23 hours ago
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    While we do allow frame challenges, we ask that they provide sufficient backup for why the frame of the question is incorrect and how the new frame will solve the problem the OP is facing. I think the information in your answer is good, but it could use stronger backup either from personal experience where you've used it or external references. – Rainbacon 22 hours ago

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