Recently, I had one of those Facebook memories pop up. It was from three years ago when I shared my excitement over my then three year old son giving me a kiss for the first time. I don’t remember posting about it. At the time, it must have felt important and like some kind of milestone he had finally met. When it popped back up on my newsfeed, I cringed a bit. We knew my older son was autistic from when he was a baby and didn’t think for one moment there was anything wrong with it. But I had begun to subtly absorb the prevailing narrative about perceived things I was “missing out on” and celebrated things he did like trying a new food or expressing affection.
Three years later, I can safely say we don’t measure anything our three autistic children do by neurotypical standards. We haven’t in a long time. Quite the opposite, honestly. I do not love affection and am not much of a hugger. This is not because I am autistic, but because I am me. I am affectionate only with my children and only if and when they are okay with it. Their bodies are their own and we do not force them to hug, kiss or reciprocate any affection or forced expressions of love. Some of my children enjoy cuddling and some do not. I don’t force any of it, just as I wouldn’t want to be compelled to be affectionate towards someone if I was disinclined to do so at the moment (or ever).
Regularly I see parents lament how their autistic child doesn’t tell them that they love them. I see them express presumptions that their child will “never say I love you”. There is so much deep seated ableism and so many pervasive, damaging ideas about autistic people and empathy. The affection aspect seems to get lumped into this. It mattered to me a few years ago, on some level. It mattered enough for me to share that my son had finally kissed me for the first time. I felt validated on some level, though I can’t really say why now. Our love for each other is strong and known, and needs no formalities.
I realize now that our autistic family shows one another love in so many ways that don’t include verbalizations of the words “I love you”.
My partner calls and orders food for me because he knows I have intense anxiety about using the phone.
My daughter shares her interests with me and wants me to sit with her and watch her favorite videos, excitedly pointing out her favorite parts.
My older son reads to me from his tornado books and races up the stairs upon his return to find me when we have been apart.
My younger son holds my hands and inhales deeply the smell of my skin.
We show love by sharing what matters to us with one another. We show love by being thoughtful and kind. We show love through understanding grumpy moods, when we may not feel as loving nor kind as usual. We show it by reminding each other to cover our ears or put on our headphones when the blender is about to be in use. We show love by respecting each others bodies and needs for space. Some of us enjoy climbing and big movements, which can turn a parent or couch into a jungle gym. Some prefer to sit on the recliner or in the play tent and remain undisturbed.
My children don’t have to do anything to show me that they love me. They are loved, unconditionally and without any strings or requirements, exactly as they are. One of my sons is non speaking and people have said to me “Don’t you feel sad that he’s never said I love you?’ I can answer unequivocally that I do not. He shows love in so many ways. He loves to take my hands and put them on his head so I can give him a deep pressure head massage. He will bring me his beloved books to read with him. He looks for me every time he wakes up during the night and settles at the sight of me. Sometimes he will take my face in his hands and study it carefully. He brings me my lip balm when he finds it on the counters and end tables.
So yeah, there are lots of ways to say I love you. No one way is more valid than another. Love in our home is given freely and without any obligation of it being expressed or displayed in a socially acceptable way. Three years ago, instead of posting to Facebook I could have just enjoyed a moment between parent and child, rather than seeing it as some achievement.
Last week, I woke up and saw my older son peering at me from his place in the bed next to me. He looked at me for a moment and then smiled. He said “Mommy, when I watch you sleep, there are lots of red love hearts floating off of your body”. Then he jumped off the bed to start his day.
Image is a purple square with six rows of small multicolored hearts, and the text in white: “There are many ways to say ‘I love you.’ Court Alice Thatcher, FB/RespectfullyConnected”