This week's episode touches on something that all parents long to hear - a child's verbal expressions of love and pride for the parent. I know it can create tears in a mom's eyes (and make a dad's chest to swell with pride) when the child announces "Mommy (or Daddy), I love you!"
Every time after that means so much more as the bond between child and adult grows stronger and deeper. When my son was little, my husband took him to a popular bookstore in Colorado Springs that had a two-story playhouse where he enjoyed reading books and playing with other children. After about 15 minutes, our son leaned out the window and yelled at the top of his voice, "Daddy, I love you!!" making my husband very proud, while another customer laughingly asked, "How do you get him to do that?!" That was truly a moment to treasure.
When working with parents of children with autism in my capacity as a diagnostic team member, one of the saddest things I hear is when a parent tells me they have never heard that phrase from their child, and how much they long for it. Parents that do hear that phrase stated frequently from their children cannot appreciate the heartbreak of parents who never hear it.
Verbally expressing pride in or love for other members of the family - parents, siblings, grandparents or cousins - can be a rarity for some children with autism. Why? The answer is because this emotion, too, is rooted in the social domain. It denotes a strong emotional bond with someone else - and social reciprocity is at the heart of the disability of autism spectrum.
A child with autism can be taught the phrase "I love you" or "I'm proud of you," but because of the presence of autism, there may also be a question in the parent's mind: Does the force of meaning have the same strength as with a child without autism spectrum? That will depend upon the underlying severity of autism, of course, but most likely, no. Does that make it less important or less needed by the parent? No, of course not!
In this episode, Max shares with Adam that he thinks Adam's picture on the front of a magazine "is awesome." Later, during an argument with Crosby, Adam blurts out that Max usually doesn't pay him much attention, and that his expression of pride in his father's achievement is rare and so very welcome. Adam is on the top of the world because of it, and he wants to savor the feeling. He will likely remember it for a long time even though Max's statement did not contain sustained eye contact with him, a reciprocal smile and the excited body language you would expect.
Adam and Crosby may wrangle about the anger and jealousy that has resulted because of the publicity, but Adam just received a spontaneous affirmation that Max really has a strong connection to his father. Parents of children with autism may know intellectually that their child has a strong bond with them, but spontaneous and overt expressions of that bond from the child are not daily, weekly or even yearly events for some families. Sadly, some families never get it. Parenting a child with autism can sometimes be a very lonely thing indeed. But as this episode of Parenthood demonstrates, sometimes your child with autism can surprise you.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.