DEAR ABBY: I am the parent of an adult man who has Down syndrome. He has many opportunities to be part of the community in addition to his job -- parties, weddings, going to stores, restaurants, movies, church.
The problem? When we are greeting people or leaving an event, complete strangers will shake hands with everyone else but hug my adult son. They do not hug anyone else. However, they think it is just fine to hug him because he is "different."
PLEASE, well-meaning folks, we parents and teachers and social workers work very hard so that our retarded adults can be accepted, productive members of the community. More important, though, is our real concern for their safety. We teach them to shake hands and greet others like "normal" people do. To be hugged by strangers is neither safe nor acceptable social behavior in our society. This behavior further sets our adult children apart as "they" and "people like that" when acceptance and inclusion is what is needed. It also confuses what we have been trying to teach.
Give them a job rather than a hug! Is it safe for your children to hug strangers? Do you hug strangers? It isn't safe for my son either! So please, smile, shake his hand and make him feel welcome. That will do more for him than a hug that diminishes his chances for safe independence in the world.
Abby, I believe I speak for many parents of retarded adults, as we have discussed this problem often. Thank you for getting this message out for all of us. -- CONCERNED MOTHER
DEAR CONCERNED: You have made your point, and I hope the well-meaning but patronizing huggers will get the message: It isn't acceptable to hug people you don't know. Inappropriate hugging sets a bad example. If the retarded adult imitates that behavior and initiates the hug, it could be misunderstood as sexually motivated.