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.

2 Answers 2


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?
    – Ael
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 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
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 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?
    – Ael
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 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
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 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
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 19:16

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