Love in the Age Of Autism
I recently revisited a Temple Grandin TED talk, The world needs all kinds of minds, from February 2010. I have watched this before and my son and I even saw her speak on this topic at the local University. But, each time I watch it I get something new out of it. What really stuck out to me on this viewing was a question asked of her at the end. Speaking for parents, the moderator asked, “Is it unrealistic for them to hope or think that that child loves them, as some might, as most, wish?” The question crossed me as strange and I think, based on her expression it may have crossed Temple Grandin as strange too. She answered saying, “Well let me tell you, that child will be loyal, and if your house is burning down, they’re going to get you out of it.”
I have never wondered if my son loves me – not once. However, unlike his sisters, he does not show love in typical ways. Hugs, kisses, telling me I look pretty- it doesn’t happen. And, I think this is what Temple Grandin was alluding to as well. Love comes in all shapes, sizes, and messages. As a parent with an autistic child, I would hope that most of us understand this and learn our own unique spectrum child’s “Love language” to steal a moniker from the well known book series.
Often, I see how this plays out for my son by watching him interact with others. When my co-worker Lori first met my son, she reached her arms out to hug him – just as she had moments ago with my girls. He turned tail and quickly walked the other way down the hallway. Later he told me, “Mom she was kind of scary.” My friend Lori was quick to figure out why that happened though. The next time he came around work, she took him aside and offered to pay him $10 if he would fix a broken fan in her office – oh and also “pretend” to be her friend. She was talking his language now. He loves to fix things for other people. That is one of his love languages. He can’t hug you dead on but he will tirelessly work to fix something for someone else.
While my son may not show love in typical expected ways, he is very loving if you know how to see it. And, I have a feeling most spectrum kids are. I worry with questions like the one asked of Temple Grandin that we are missing the love signals those kids are sending us, particularly if we rely on what society prescribes as loving behavior.
When I am leaving, particularly if it is going to be overnight, my son will say goodbye, turn his back to me, and walk back into me. It makes me want to “beep beep beep” like a truck backing up. Be careful though, if you aren’t paying attention you might miss this. He wants a hug. Yep, my son will let you hug him from the back. He has also newly added the side lunge, where he will swipe his shoulder towards yours – that also means “you can hug me now.”
My girls love to hand out little love notes. My classroom is full of images of me and them, hand in hand with hearts floating about. “Mommy is the best teacher.” “I love mommy.” My autistic son doesn’t do this. But, he has his own form of love notes. He loves to plan and organize “exhibits for people” complete with scheduled announcements of upcoming events. He also goes through the house and generates repair reports for items that need fixing. These are the love notes my son generates for me and I cherish them as highly as the notes from my girls.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. If you have to get after my son over anything, you will be treated to a host of “I’m sorry,” “I won’t ever do that again,” “I am upset that I did that.” Until you are then annoyed that he says it so much, even after you have assured him it is fine. “I’m sorry I keep apologizing mom.” He hates to disappoint people. He hates to let others down. While he doesn’t overtly come across as though he is concerned about how people perceive him, his fear of letting those close to him down really pinpoints that he absolutely cares.
It takes us forever to get out of the house. My son gets upset if you don’t warn him a good 30 minutes first. He has to plan and be organized. I remember one day when we were headed to the mountains. He delayed us considerably and the contents of his bag looked like he was planning for a backpackers overnight weekend in the national park. We got after him. Two hours later, his grandfather took a dive on the ground and my sons “first aid” kit came in really handy.
I could keep going on – but really all spectrum kids are different. My son’s “Love Languages” may be different than your child’s. But, my goal here is to illustrate that autistic kids, kids on the spectrum, disabled kids, they are capable of love. It’s my job as the parent to recognize the ways he does this and help him learn to capitalize on this.
And this goes beyond my relationship with him. I want my son to have loving relationships with other family members and his friends. I want him to fall madly in love and have someone fall madly in love with him. I want him to find “the one” and start a family – if that is what he wants. And I hope all those people see the deep undercurrent of love that runs through him, even if it doesn’t involve hugs, hearts, and other normal conventions that we think of as “love.”