My son has a lovely night-time routine. Right before he turns out his light or heads back upstairs after getting a glass of water, he says, “Goodnight,” and waits for our “Goodnight” response. Then he says, “I love you,” and again waits for us to say, “I love you, too.” Then he says “Goodnight” one more time. Our second “Goodnight” response is required. As the years have gone by, this routine has never been missed. It can be altered slightly; if I say “I love you” before I say the first “Goodnight,” there is always two “Goodnights” following in rapid fire.
As most parents living with autism we waited a long time to hear those words from our son. And when they came, my heart soared, for a long time. So it took me awhile to realize that he was stuck in a pattern with it and pretty rigid about when, how, and why you would say “I love you.” And when I realized this, it made me wonder – does he actually mean he loves me, or is he simply reciting a script?
I was raised during the era of attachment parenting, ala Dr. Sears. While pregnant with my first child I read all the books, embraced all the to-do’s. It aligned not only with my personal values but closely with how I was raised – lots of love and respect drove the parent-child relationship. So my idea of parenting had a distinctive tone. And I still agree that this is the “right” way to raise a child. But when you’re parenting with autism, attachment parenting feels out of reach. While you’re giving love, respect and care; it’s incredibly difficult to see any attachment develop and, in most cases, feel the love coming back.
I spent years assuming my child’s love while also developing a relationship that was incredibly intertwined. One where I ceased to be a separate person and lived almost exclusively in my son’s fascinating, but isolated, world. I knew he loved me, but I had to actively seek it; position myself in just the right place, emotionally and physically, in order to receive that message. It was consuming (and exhausting) and not entirely healthy. But I needed that attachment. I’m incredibly grateful that I had the time and energy, and that my son had the skills to join me in building this attachment. It wasn’t easy, or innate. Because, well, we were living with autism.
Not all parents have the resources to practice this intricate back-and-forth, nor do the core personalities of parent and child always lend themselves to this level of intimacy. And some children living with autism just can’t connect at this level with their loved-ones. So what happens when that connection doesn’t develop? And how do parents – loving, kind, generous parents – keep going forward when they never hear nor feel “I love you” coming from their child?
I don’t know how we apply attachment parenting techniques when faced with this, but I do know how many of us move forward. It is then that small moments become our child’s voice, telling us through the set of their shoulders, or the flick of an eye that we are loved. We live in an emotional space of our own creation, decorated by our silent yearnings for close and tender moments. The love is there. And we are incredibly good at detecting it. It’s just the attachment, based almost solely on our one-way efforts, that is riddled with gaps and held together by slender threads.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still thrilled that my child says, “I love you.” I’ll take it any way it comes – as a script, as a pattern, as part of a routine – as would most parents. Yet it’s hard to know if the attachment Dr. Sears presents lies behind those words. And in the end, I guess it really doesn’t matter. Love is love. And when you finally find it, as a parent living with autism, it is the pivotal moment upon which your life revolves.