For many people, giving a child, family member, friend or even stranger a hug is second nature.
But for 56 year old Arsenal Whittick, hugging anyone is physically and emotionally painful. The father of two was unable to hug his children. It wasn’t until 7 years ago that he realised the devastating impact his behaviour, a result of undiagnosed autism, had on his children. Arsenal’s daughter Samantha tried to commit suicide at 15 years old.
It was Samantha’s suicide attempt that led to Arsenal’s diagnosis at the age of 49.
Arsenal said; “Until I was diagnosed with autism I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do something as simple as giving a hug and the negative affect this had on my daughters. By pushing myself to do this I really hope that I can raise awareness and help people to understand autism”.
Before his diagnosis Arsenal was unable to show his daughters any physical affection. He had never hugged them. Not over grazed knees or illness. Not when friendships ended or exams were passed or failed. Not at Christmas or on birthday celebrations. Not once.
Arsenal continued; “To me, hugging someone is like a burning on my skin. It’s like getting a potato peeler and when I look down I’ve got no skin and all I can see is red.”
This lack of intimacy was one of a myriad of reasons that Samantha tried to take her own life. She felt isolated, insecure and unloved.
Following the suicide attempt the family had counselling. The Clinical Psychologist was quick to send Arsenal for a referral after learning of his rigid routines and uncompromising behaviour. Following an assessment, 6 months later, Arsenal was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 26th May 2011 was a life changing day.
After his diagnosis Arsenal and his family received support from Autism Wessex’ Information and Advice Service. An advisor helped the family to work through what the diagnosis meant and gave Arsenal guidance on strategies he could use to help communication with his family. Arsenal and his family were able to begin to rebuild their lives.
It was following diagnosis that Arsenal realised the impact his behaviour had on his daughters. On Christmas Day in 2014 he set himself a challenge to hug his daughters for the first time.
He vividly recalls the moment with Samantha; “After I had given Samantha her present, I said ‘I have one more present for you. I want to hug you’. We tried for about 20 minutes because every time I got near to her it was like she was holding a dagger that was going through me. I hugged her and she just cried”.
Since then he has been determined to raise awareness of autism and funds for regional charity Autism Wessex. In April of this year, to help celebrate the charity’s landmark 50th Birthday, Arsenal set himself a personal mammoth challenge; to hug as many people as he could at Bournemouth University.
Siún Cranny, Autism Wessex’ CEO, said; “I cannot express how much of a challenge this was for Arsenal. I was privileged to be one of the 28 people on the receiving end of a fantastic hug. Like everyone, I began to have some sense of how physically painful, uncomfortable and emotionally draining each of the 28 hugs was. It’s an incredibly selfless act that Arsenal has completed, not only to raise money for Autism Wessex, but to raise wider awareness and understanding of autism. The services we deliver can provide life changing effects for people just like Arsenal. We are here to support everyone with autism in our region and their families.”
During this charity challenge Arsenal hugged 28 people, many of them complete strangers.
The money you give will go towards helping support people like Arsenal with advice, support and care pre and post diagnosis.
Don't forget we are looking for 50 people to join Team 50 taking on a challenge of their choice and raising £50.