Parents all over the world from every generation have shared in the high privilege of sharing in one particular delight with their children. In the beginning, an infant may first show affection and acknowlegment of a familiar face or voice by locking eyes and grinning a huge toothless gummy smile that melts the hearts of its recipients. Little grubby hands grab a parent around their pantleg and bury their head in mom or dad’s knees. Open-mouthed kisses find your cheek and leave behind a trace of their slobbery love. Sweet little voices echo back after bedtime hugs and kisses, “I wuv you Mommy!” And the mac-daddy of them all: the “I love you” every parent longs to hear and waits impatiently for its arrival – the “I love you” that comes straight from their little one’s heart initiated all by themselves out of the blue. Not because you gave them food, or toys, or bedtime hugs and kisses. Just because they have an inkling of what it means, and they express it for you. And they tell you so. And your heart melts all over again.
But there are also parents all over the world from every generation that have prayed for the high privilege of delighting in affection from their children and will never get – at least not in the way which every other family experiences. These parents may or may not have gotten the toothless grins or locked eyes with their bright-eyed babies. However things may have started out, somewhere along the line, things changed. For those parents who did get the gum-smiles, at some point they disappeared. The smiles may still be there, but not directed at Mommy or Daddy. For those who exchanged secrets in the depths of their son’s eyes, a gray cloud descended over the once-clear windows to their soul. For those parents who’s legs were trapped in a hug with toddler hands and their knees bearing the weight of their child’s head in a body hug, somehow, the need in this child and know-how for showing and receiving affection retreated to a secret hiding place that was confidential to the parents desperate to get it back.
My Samuel has the most beautiful eyes. As much as I relish in Ben and Josh’s crystal-clear blue eyes, Sam’s eyes grab my heart every time. When he was a newborn, he would just stare into my eyes as if he were searching out my very soul. His eyes are this incredible deep-set stone-gray blue eyes with long black eyelashes. I felt such a connection with him as a baby when we shared long gazes. He smiled those toothless grins but instead of coos, he screeched incessantly. As a toddler, he would pull away from me when I tried to hug him and refused kisses, screaming as if they were painful to him. The only “I love you”‘s I got were from echolalia (repeating phrases or words over and over) or out of sheer bedtime routine for the first 4 years. He said it because I said it, and he was supposed to say it back.
The first time I heard him tell me he loved me outside of echolalia or routine was one night at home putting on his shoes. He had been crying about something and we were trying to leave the house. I pulled him into my lap on the floor, and as I wrestled his velcro shoes on his feet I was quietly talking to him, “What’s wrong Sam? Why are you crying?” He shook his head and continued crying. But then I heard the most glorious four words that made the sun and moon stand still. He cried out, “I just love you!” It was said in a way that sounded like he was mad at me, but his words said otherwise. His shoes were on, and I just held him as tightly as he would let me. With tears in my eyes, I said, “I love you too, Sam! Thank you for telling me that! That makes me SO happy you told me you love me. You really love me?” He nodded his head yes. Then he jumped up to get his blanket so we could leave. The moment was over. But it will live forever in my heart and mind. My son loved me! I knew he did, but what a difference it made to HEAR it! I always wondered if he knew I loved him, if he even knew what love was, if he loved me, if he would ever tell me or show me in some way.
It’s two years later, and Sam’s displays of affection are increasing. They are both more frequent, and a bit odd. But I don’t care how he does it. Sometimes he hangs on me draping his arms around my shoulders if I’m sitting, or wrapping his arms around my waist if I’m standing and makes silly toddler noises, “La la la la la…” (When it’s in public, as it was last week, I’m actually quite proud to let him show me he loves me, even if it seems odd. I will never deny affection from my son, no matter who’s looking.) Sometimes he sits really close to me, but won’t let me put my arm around him or touch him with my hands. And sometimes, like today, he goes all out with a full-blown hug and kiss. After church today, he found me talking with a friend, blatantly interrupted and hugged me around my waist and kissed my stomach. Then he said, “Mommy, after we sing and pray in church, I always give you a hug and a kiss.” He was looking sideways down at the ground instead of into my eyes, but he didn’t have to. As he ran off to play, I silently played the flashbacks of how he’s given and received affection over the last six years in my mind. He’s come so far, and God has blessed us beyond measure.
The stereotypical autism says “I don’t know how to show you love. I don’t let you love me the way you want to love me. I don’t know how to share in joint-attention in something as intimate and confusing as ‘love’. Love scares me. Hugs make me nervous. Kisses hurt. Exchanging glances is too much to bear. Just let me be where I am, and you be where you are; that’s good enough for me and it will have to be good enough for you too.” But the autism I know gives hope. The autism I know gives glimpses of the love I long to express with my child. The autism I know shows me how wrong statistics can be. The autism I know grants me reprieves from doubt with great moments of delighting in my growing boy. And sometimes, more and more, the autism I know lets my Sam just be Sam. That’s my favorite kind.