Content Warning: this article discusses the dangers of making children vulnerable to abuse and manipulation, but does not discuss specific instances of abuse.
Not long ago there was a debate on a British morning TV show, the topic being “should we ask for consent before tickling a child?” The debate made headlines and spread to the internet, where the general reaction from the public was “what kind of stupid question is that?”
Oddly, there were two completely different reasons for that reaction. Half the public thought it was a stupid question because tickling should be a natural indispensable part of childhood, and any attempt to get rid of it must be nanny-stating, PC gone mad, or whatever.
The other half thought it was a stupid question because maybe, just maybe, a child should have a say in whether an adult grabs them by the belly and/or the armpits.
Given the way I phrased that, you’ve probably guessed what my opinion is. And it comes from a safeguarding perspective rather than a social one. If a child doesn’t get to control when they are tickled, they learn that other people get to decide what happens to their body, not them. (Oh, and that they’re ‘spoiling the fun’ if they don’t let the other person get their way.)
This, of course, applies to any situation where a child has a physical interaction with someone – wrestling, hugs, and all etcs – and whether the other person’s an adult or another child.
If you wanted me to sum up this whole article in one sentence, it would be this:.
Physical contact should happen on the child’s terms rather than the adult’s, and the child should be taught to know this.
Being an educator myself, I can give you chapter and verse about safeguarding training and guidance. I know what signs to look for in a child enduring abuse, and I can recite word-for-word the process to follow if a child discloses abuse to an adult. But reading these words about consent from Lola Phoenix, an autistic woman who endured sexual abuse throughout childhood, was harrowing. I suggest that everyone reading this should read that article too.
Truthfully, we don’t talk about these subjects enough. Largely because the topic’s so difficult to talk about, and it’s easier to keep silent about awkward subjects. But silence leads to abuse, and the fact that it’s so difficult to talk about guarantees that we must talk about it.
(Incidentally, one thing I found particularly frightening about Phoenix’s article was how similar her childhood perspective was to my own: that the opinions of more socially able people would automatically take priority over mine. I may have had the literal ability to say ‘no’, but it seemed like other people had a choice in whether or not to respect my wishes. Despite this I was thankfully never abused as a child, but these days I know many vulnerable autistic children – professionally and socially – several of whom have significant learning difficulties. And honestly, I’m bloody terrified. This article was basically written out of fear for the young autistic people I care about.)
So what is The Stop Rule?
Pretty much what it sounds like.
I once knew two young siblings who used to play-fight all the time. And they’d usually go far enough for one of them to end up in tears. Fairly standard among boisterous children, I know. And with the blessing of their parents, I stepped in and offered them some guidance:
“If you want to fight each other and you both enjoy it, then fine – go right ahead. But there is one absolutely unbreakable rule that you both need to follow. The moment one of you says “stop”, the other person will stop. Right there, right then, no questions asked.”
At the time, this wasn’t even a safeguarding strategy. It was teaching them a lesson in self-control, in mutual respect, and knowing how to not take things too far. But after reading Phoenix’s article, I later came to see The Stop Rule as an opportunity to teach bodily autonomy to young people, and give them opportunities to practise saying no with the expectation that it must be listened to.
Let me be clear: when you tickle a child with learning difficulties (this includes academic high-flyers with social difficulties), you can either make them less vulnerable to abuse or more vulnerable to abuse, depending on what rules you have in place, what opportunities the child has to express their wishes, and what they are taught to expect from adults in return.
And in case you missed it, read that last paragraph again. It’s important.
An example in teaching bodily autonomy
I often visit my friend Julie, whose daughter Eliza (just turned ten years old) loves having me there. She’s autistic and has social learning difficulties, as well as a history of communication struggles. She’s also a sensory seeker, and very tactile with those she lets into her world.
This was a photo taken during a talk I gave in India, where I spoke about the importance of professionals respecting their young clients’ right to autonomy. And despite the serious subject matter, I have to admit I love that headswap picture.
For example, Eliza loves being carried and being tickled. She demands both from me, which I’m happy to do. And the general pattern goes like this:
She says “carry me Chris,” and I pick her up. She immediately says “put me down,” and I put her down. The moment her toes hit the floor she immediately says “carry me Chris” again, and so on. This continues literally dozens of times, because she loves repetition.
From my perspective, it gets grating. Because it’s utterly exhausting to pick her up and put her down endless times, and it’s also a little annoying to start/stop something whilst knowing it’ll change three seconds later.
But every time she asks me to put her down or stop tickling, I stop. Every time. No questions asked. Even if she’s clearly going to reverse her decision a moment later. Even if she’s clearly doing it just to wind me up. Whenever she says stop, I stop.
The reason should be obvious: it’s showing basic respect towards Eliza and her wishes. But there is one extra reason: I don’t want Eliza to grow up thinking that sentences like “stop doing that” give the other person a choice.
If Eliza does the start/stop thing a hundred times in one evening, she will get a hundred examples of what must happen when she tells someone to stop. I want to solidify it in her brain that it’s a basic expectation for the other person to respect her wishes.
I want her to understand that if she says stop and the other person doesn’t stop, then something is wrong.
And if it involves backache from a hundred lifts instead of one, then my back is going to ache. I don’t care.
We should tell children specifically that they’re allowed to say no.
Stepping away from The Stop Rule for a moment, I’d like to share the details of a talk I have started giving to young individuals who struggle with saying no. I have given this talk to autistic and non-autistic alike, and children and teenagers alike. Sometimes the young person struggles to speak up because of anxiety, sometimes they feel they’re “not allowed” to change their mind after saying yes to something, and (most commonly of all) sometimes they’re conscientious and don’t want to risk offending the other person.
When I see the signs of one of these, I have a chat with the young person’s parents and ask if it would be helpful to have a talk to them about it. (This is a very important principle if you’re advising young people outside of your family, whether professionally or socially. The parents must be aware and kept closely involved. Both for transparency reasons, and because you’ll do a better job with their insights and advice anyway.)
Feel free to steal this conversation, and adapt it as you see fit.
If the conversation was sparked by a certain event, I start off by referring to that event: what happened, how they responded, and why they responded that way (non-judgementally, of course). I then tell them that being conscientious and polite are wonderful qualities, and seeking to not offend people is quite honourable. But it should never override their right to say no to things they’re uncomfortable with.
I give them two reasons why it’s so important to say they’re uncomfortable rather than just think it:
First, the other person might genuinely have no idea they feel uncomfortable. Taking me for example, I’m quite open about my struggles with comfort zones and it probably explains why I like people being so specific with me. If you don’t tell me you’re uncomfortable, I won’t figure it out. And even leaving autism out of the equation, a lot of the time just saying “I don’t like this” is enough to make the person apologise and change their actions. (And either way, being specific removes any reasonable chance of misunderstanding or misinterpretation.)
And secondly… you can learn a lot about the other person by the way they respond to you saying no. If the person apologises and stops (note that the worded apology should be backed up with actions), then it’s likely you can trust them. If they try to make you feel guilty for saying no, or seem unduly offended (to the extent that their needs are portrayed as more important than yours), then that should ring alarm bells.
Either way, if you want to see how respectful a person is, tell them “no” and watch what happens next.
There is an extra bit I add on to this, particularly if the young person is conscientious and doesn’t want to run the risk of offending people. I say:
“Anyone who truly cares about you, myself included, is unlikely to get offended by you saying you’re uncomfortable. But imagine that I ask to take you to a massive death metal concert, with big crowds, loads of alcohol and loud raging music, and you feel pretty scared about it. And let’s pretend that when you say no, I actually do get offended by you refusing to come along. In that situation… don’t give a shit.”
And yes, with anyone aged 12+ I use that exact wording (unless it’s someone I work with professionally, of course). I have a reputation for not swearing both online and offline, because I use it so sparingly – in situations where I need it to have an impact.
After the look of surprise, I then say:
“Because whose feelings matter more in that situation? The adult who wants a rock buddy, or the young person who literally feels scared? The moment someone asks you to do something, or whether you want something, or for your permission to do something, your feelings automatically matter more than theirs. Be thoughtful of other people, sure. Be caring and compassionate and everything else you are. But never forget that you’re a priority too.”
Like I said, feel free to steal those words and adapt them as you see fit, for use with anyone who doesn’t feel able to say no to things.
Ok, now let’s bring this back to autism.
“How are autistic people meant to negotiate boundaries when they spend the vast majority of their lives having their own boundaries ignored, trampled, or ridiculed?”
This question was the opening sentence of Phoenix’s article, and it’s a bloody good one.
Remember that picture earlier of me talking in India? During that talk, I spoke out quite firmly against the way ABA is often practised. (ABA, for those who don’t know, is the standard go-to “treatment” for autism in the US, and is threatening to gain ground in Britain too. Although it’s practised differently depending on the professional, its roots are fairly ugly – even being invented by the same man who invented gay conversion therapy.)
The biggest concern I have about ABA personally is how it’s so often used as a means of making an autistic child appear less autistic. That the “removal of autistic behaviours” is seen as a priority over teaching the child to communicate their needs, express their concerns and self-advocate. And that, all too often, the child is “displaying defiant behaviour” if they complain about being made to feel uncomfortable by the demands placed on them.
If ABA must happen, the child must always have the option of saying “I’ve had enough”, or “I don’t want to”. Otherwise, they will never feel safe in those sessions. And let’s be honest, they would be right to not feel safe under those circumstances. The next adult who tries to make them do uncomfortable things might not be trying to teach them life skills.
I made this picture for Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page:
Long story short: if you want an autistic child to learn about boundaries, teach them about their own. If you want an autistic child to learn about respecting boundaries, respect theirs too.
Some FAQs about The Stop Rule:
What if my child is nonverbal or struggles with spoken communication?
I don’t claim to be an expert in nonverbal communication, but I know that nonverbal communication can still be loud and clear. If the child can’t express themselves with spoken words, having a clear and specific signal can have the same effect.
For example, I had a discussion with the mother of a seven-year-old autistic boy who liked play-fighting whenever he got the chance, but found himself unable to speak in the middle of it (despite otherwise being very vocal).
However, he was familiar with WWE and how matches work between competitors: that if Finn Bálor is pinning Braun Strowman so hard that the poor guy can’t carry on, he “taps out”- smacking his hand against the floor to signify that he’s quitting the match.
Leaving aside the fact that Braun Strowman is such a titanic brick wall that he’d almost never tap out to anyone (yeah, he’s one of my favourites), the point is fairly clear. All this child needed was someone to remind him of what the wrestlers do, and suddenly he had his way of saying “stop”. And to this day, whenever he’s had enough he taps out, nice and clear.
Can this be useful in teaching a child about other people’s boundaries, as well as their own?
Yes! The Stop Rule goes both ways. It goes all ways.
This exact same child was just as physical with the family cat as he tends to be with humans, and often struggled to recognise when he was going too far. The cat could hardly tell him with words that he was being too rough, and this lad was no better at reading the cat’s body language as I would have been at his age.
Last time I was round for a visit, I saw him playing with the cat as usual, and the cat was clearly uncomfortable – waving its tail, shuffling backwards, and moving away from the boy’s hands.
Somewhat impulsively, my exact words were “Nathan, the cat’s tapping out.” Immediately, he stopped and let the cat go.
Nothing much happened after that, but the next day I got a message from his mother. It simply read:
“Nathan has been stepping away from the cat when he puts his paw up saying ‘ok you have tapped out’… result! Thank you for that!”
How quick should I expect my child to understand this?
It doesn’t matter. Teach it anyway, reinforce it anyway.
With that said, you may be surprised at how quickly it’s understood. Sure, most social conventions are really complicated (e.g. dropping unclear hints in order to be “polite”, or understanding social comfort zones when nobody talks about them specifically). But when it has a physical element attached to it and is more overtly related to what’s comfortable and what isn’t, rules may be easier to pick up.
Surprisingly, I’ve seen The Stop Rule enhance language skills as well. After preaching the Stop Rule Gospel to a friend of mine, her ten-year-old son – who communicates almost entirely through echolalia – learned to say “stop” almost immediately during all the tickle-fights he kept demanding. It very quickly evolved into a stop-start game (similar to Eliza above), with him saying “stop… yes… stop… yes.” Apparently within ten minutes it had become “stop… start… stop… start.” After that he was saying the names of body parts he wanted tickling, and the phrase “get off” when he’d had enough (or even as part of his stop-start game, “feet… get off… feet… get off.”).
By the end, I’m told he was saying “please can you get off me feet please”. And all the while, he was having enormous fun.
But it’s vital to mention: whereas these games might help with verbal expression, it should never be an objective. Advanced language would only be a bonus, nothing more. Otherwise you end up with a terrified child, who fears being tickled into saying words that they struggle with. Any form of “stop”, verbal or nonverbal, must always be accepted and respected.
(Historically, this boy’s favourite form of “stop” has always been “I need a wee!!” Because that absolutely guarantees that everyone will let go of him! Of course, he knows his parents would let go of him no matter how he expressed it, but what kind of young boy doesn’t love toilet humour?)
Isn’t there a risk that my child will use it to start refusing to follow regular instructions (e.g. going to bed, doing homework)?
Yes. Thanks to Eliza’s school teaching her the value of self-advocacy too, she has started trying to avoid schoolwork by “exercising my right to say no” (yep, those were her literal words).
But again, teach it anyway. No matter how annoying it gets. Would you rather have an annoying but confident child who can stand up for themselves, or a shy child whose lack of self-advocacy skills might put them at risk of manipulation?
In my opinion, the best way of handling it is explaining why a certain rule must be followed. Schoolwork must be completed because it’s teaching you important skills. Going to bed on time is important because it gives you more energy for the next day. Taking your disgusting medicine is important because it will help you feel better later on.
(Yes, I’m from the school of thought that believes “because I’m the adult and I say so!” is never a sufficient reason to ask for a child’s compliance. If you can’t give them an actual reason beyond just exercising your authority, then maybe the command shouldn’t be obeyed.)
What else can this be applied to?
Just about everything where boundaries exist. The other day I watched an autistic boy swivel-chair-jousting (yes, swivel-chair-jousting). Leaving aside the fact that playing with the swivel-chair was self-regulation for this 11-year-old during a long and boring day, it was also a lot of fun. So instead of telling him not to do it, his mother and I taught him how to do it safely.
Trust me, it’s more valuable that way. My parents taught me how to climb trees safely. So I kept climbing and took precautions, recognising that climbing would only get dangerous if I chose to stop paying attention. If my parents had banned me from climbing trees altogether, I would probably have kept on climbing anyway – my only precaution being making sure I had no witnesses.
And yes, teaching children how to chair-joust may sound childish. But, as I’ve said before, your childhood lasts as long as you let it. The key is learning how to be responsible at the same time as being childlike.
There is one additional reason why we really need to stop when an autistic child asks. (And this applies to autistic adults too.)
It’s just the respectful thing to do with another human.
Like it or not, autistic children are treated differently to their peers – and not necessarily in order to accommodate their needs. Autistic children are all too often assumed to not be ‘less worthy’ of being listened to, because of their condition and because of how it impacts their communication.
So I often encourage people to ask themselves this question: would I react differently if this were a non-autistic child? And if so, how is the autistic child benefitting from me treating them differently?
If you wouldn’t treat them the same as a non-autistic child, and there is no benefit to them in you doing so, then perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether the child is the one who struggles with boundaries.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook