He seems incapable of interacting without it. When he talks to the teachers, he leans too closely, drapes his arm over ours, rests his head on our shoulders. When with the other children, he almost always has to throw his arm over their shoulder as they talk.
We’ve tried to explain to him that he needs to give others more personal space sometimes. But the behavior comes to him so naturally it’s practically involuntary.
To him, touch is a language that others aren’t able to translate.
His mother passed away, so he’s currently raised by his older brother. His older brother works a normal job now, but has a history of excellence and national fame (which I won’t go into here, to keep everyone’s privacy safe and sound).
Watching the third grader surf this torrent of emotions while living in the shadow of the brother he admires so much, I can understand why touch has become so important to him. I relate to him.
As a child I quickly learned that words were, for the most part, a useless way to communicate. People used them to generate lies nearly nonstop, so why even bother? But people didn’t lie with their shifting eyes or the way they scratched their neck. Even if faked, the true intents could be felt in a handshake or a hug.
I was the friend who leaned too close. I’m the lover who touches too much.
My coworkers and I recently discovered the third grader has been telling his friends what he knows about sex. He’s also been claiming that when he hugs female staff members, he feels their breasts (or as he refers to them, boobies).
I was shocked by his behavior, and more surprised by how much his behavior distraught me. He’s always been prone to talking out-of-line and minor misbehavior, but we enjoy his company and more importantly, we trusted him.
We went through the talks about disrespect, about boundaries, about sex. There were discussions with his family and disciplinary actions taken. For a week he was separated from the others, forced to sit alone while they played. It was heartbreaking to watch, to see him divided from the touch he craves.
During our time in the gym, he understood that he wasn’t allowed to play with the others, but asked if he could participate in the laps and stretches before they play. We allowed it.
He found solace in books.
He read a few chapters out loud to me. He reads especially fast for his age.
His week has passed and his punishment is lifted, and he’s working hard to rebuild our trust in him.
I know behind our backs he’ll drop the occasional reference to private parts or say something inappropriate about someone. As an adolescent he'll probably approach females too aggressively and be too much of a smart ass towards his teachers.
But I think he’s going to be okay.