Professional Cuddling: A Safety Guide for Autistics

By Kalina Jones

Cuddle Comfort – it’s a platform for those in need of touch to find both amateur and professional cuddlers in their cities. To register as a professional cuddler, your application will need to be approved so that you can begin to use the company’s established branding and directory to access clients.

With the rise of services like DoorDash and Uber, those looking for work can embrace alternative employment that offers flexibility and independence that is often lacking in traditional workplaces.

And professional cuddling is becoming a more popular, though perhaps surprising, job for those considering their options.

Cuddling for Hire: Autistics as professional cuddlers

For autistic individuals, these non-traditional platforms provide new opportunities to a population that traditionally has difficulty accessing employment. Research places the unemployment and “underemployment” rate among autistic adults in the US at 50-70%.1

Some of the obstacles that may drive unemployment numbers include difficulty with the interviewing process, being misinterpreted in interviews due to employers’ lack of education about autism, and lack of effective accommodations once hired. Freelancing apps avoid many of these obstacles and explain why neurodivergent workers in particular may be attracted to them.

Besides being flexible, jobs like professional cuddling can be financially lucrative. Some cuddlers report bringing home one hundred dollars for providing just one hour of platonic cuddling.2 This is a life-changing rate for someone who may be working part-time in a minimum wage job or out of work entirely.

But as more people embrace these freelance opportunities, some in the autistic community have concerns that autistics may be particularly vulnerable to the safety issues such a profession presents.

Safety Concerns for Autistics

The voiced concerns are reasonable, given that rates of sexual abuse are already higher in the autistic community than in the general population. In one survey on the prevalence of sexual abuse, as many as 78% of autistic participants reported experiencing some form of sexual victimization, compared with 47% of non-autistics.3

Professional cuddling presents obvious safety concerns, but these may be amplified when viewed from an autistic lens.

A different cuddling platform, Cuddlist, states on their website that, “Our trained practitioners ensure that every part of a session is held in a secure, platonic container based on clear communication and consent.”4 This sounds reassuring, but makes it clear that the responsibility for maintaining firm boundaries lies on the professional. It’s fair to question whether this puts autistic individuals, many of whom may be victims of past sexual abuse or struggle with assertive communication when under stress, in a uniquely vulnerable position.

Besides the potential for triggering situations, it is known that autistics respond to stressors differently than non-autistics. One potential response is commonly known as a “shutdown.” Researchers Loos, Miller, and Loos suggest that “shutdowns occur when an abnormal stress response is triggered by a particular set of circumstances.” 5

When overwhelmed by stress, some autistics may lose the ability to speak or more passive than normal. Further, many autistic people are known to experience catatonia and settle into automatic demand compliance. These experiences would clearly make it difficult to deftly navigate uncomfortable or unsafe situations that would be unpleasant or frightening for anyone to experience.

Sexual propositions during cuddle sessions

So what situations may be faced by a professional cuddler, and are they common? In an interview with International Business Times, Kimberly Kilbride of The Snuggle Buddiezdiscussed how she handles clients proposing sexual activity in the course of a cuddle session. “If they suggest we do something more, I’ll remind them that prostitution is illegal in New York City, so that I’m not in the position to say, ‘I don’t want to f— you.’”

Another cuddler, Scott Cameron, shared that he changes the topic when a client implies they want non-platonic touch.6 While it’s impossible to know how often this occurs, it’s perhaps telling that those interviewed discussed how they handle when— and not if— the scenario happens and seem familiar and practiced in their methods of dealing with it.

Kilbride also touched on feeling out clients and situations intuitively: “If I get a vibe, like texts from people who sounded like they were soliciting sex, I’ll tell my boss I don’t feel comfortable meeting with this person, and he’ll say: ‘That’s fine.’ We’re independent contractors.”

While this may work for cuddlers like Kilbride some or most of the time, it’s problematic for autistics who may have trouble reading subtle cues both in conversation and real-world scenarios like meetups. Much of the burden of the responsibility for ensuring personal safety rests on the individual, and professionals like Kilbride even go so far as to try to save client feelings while turning down prostitution.

Safety Guide

Of course, autistic people are autonomous and capable of making their own decisions. Exploring safety concerns is not an attempt to infantilize autistics or suggest that it is impossible for them to navigate challenging social situations skillfully. It would be wise for everyone, autistic or otherwise, to put safety practices in place when engaging in professional cuddling.

The Cuddle Comfort forums are full of pro-cuddlers sharing their safety tips and tricks.7For those who decide that a cuddling platform is a good potential employment opportunity, the following are common practices to help ensure personal safety.

  • Request a name and public meeting prior to the first cuddle meet-up. Many cuddlers report they require clients to share a photo and name so that they can verify that they are who they say they are (simple Google and social media searches are a way to go about this). Many also require that clients meet with them briefly at a public location prior to the first cuddle session.
  • Give the client’s info to a family member or friend prior to the first session. This should ideally include the client’s name and the address where you are meeting. One cuddler even reported collecting license plate numbers and vehicle model and color at the initial meet-up.
  • Find family or friends who are willing to check on you. Safety guidelines vary based on preference, but some include sending a text confirmation that all is well to a friend or family member within fifteen minutes of the session start time and contacting them again within a certain amount of time after the session end time. Clarify what this person should do if you do not respond (perhaps wait five minutes and call you, then call 911 if there is no answer).
  • Leave valuables in the trunk of your vehicle. Do not take anything inside with you that might present a motivation for theft.
  • Consider and rehearse how you would deal with sexual propositions ahead of time. Come up with a way of saying, “I only offer non-sexual cuddles” clearly and explicitly that you are comfortable with. Perhaps practice upholding your boundaries assertively with a friend before the need to do so in a real-life setting arises.

As professional cuddling grows in popularity and becomes more accessible to those looking for employment, questions arise about safety concerns for those in the autistic community.

Overwhelming responses to stressful situations, differences in communication, difficulty reading subtle cues, and the possibility of a history of sexual victimization or interpersonal trauma are all factors to consider and address when considering the suitability of this type of employment. Autistic individuals must ultimately decide for themselves whether they would like to engage in cuddling as a profession, and they can take several steps to increase personal safety if they choose to do so.

Kalina Jones earned her BA in Psychology from Cleveland State University and is passionate about advocating for the dignity and rights of consumers of mental health services. Critiquing the DSM-V is a favorite nerdy past-time and she follows the critical psychology movement closely, having been first introduced to radical concepts in mental health by the Icarus Project over a decade ago. She spends her free time walking in parks, organizing pagan events, and laughing with her partner Brian. Her original article appears on Neuroclastic, a website that provides information about the autism spectrum from autistic people. Read it here.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

References

1 Palumbo, J. “J. (2021, April 27). Why autism speaks is encouraging companies to hire those on the autistic spectrum. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferpalumbo/2021/04/27/why-autism-speaks-is-encouraging-companies-to-hire-those-on-the-autistic-spectrum/?sh=30ba763452a2. 

2 Rodríguez, A. A. (2019, February 7). The life of a professional cuddler: Making $100 an hour to hug strangers. wkyc.com. Retrieved from https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/nation-world/the-life-of-a-professional-cuddler-making-100-hour-to-hug-strangers/507-755a23c1-b6bd-42dd-964e-c0b957b57dc2. 

3 Brown-Lavoie, S. M., Viecili, M. A., & Weiss, J. A. (2014). Sexual knowledge and victimization in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(9), 2185–2196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2093-y 

4 For therapists. Cuddlist. (2020, March 9). Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://cuddlist.com/for-therapists/. 

5 Loos Miller, I. M., & Loos, H. G. (2015, August 15). Shutdowns and stress in autism. Autism Awareness Centre Inc. Retrieved from https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shutdowns-stress-autism/. 

6 Herman, B. (2015, February 12). Confessions of a professional cuddler: When men get aroused, ‘I ignore it’. International Business Times. Retrieved from https://www.ibtimes.com/confessions-professional-cuddler-when-men-get-aroused-i-ignore-it-1814294. 

7 How do you handle safety? — Cuddle Comfort. Cuddle Comfort. (2019, May). Retrieved from https://www.cuddlecomfort.com/forum/discussion/5988/how-do-you-handle-safety.