Written by Melissa Bowen, BCBA, LBS, Director of ABA Services
Love and affection are such uniquely beautiful things. Every type of person seeks out love and wants to receive affection from the important people in their lives. We hear a lot about love languages and attachment styles for neurotypical people, and that’s a really cool tool to learn more about yourself if it applies to you. But what we don’t hear much about is how to show love and affection to people on the autism spectrum. People with autism feel deeply. They love, want to be loved, and have beautiful and unique ways of expressing that love. It might look different, though, from what you are used to or what you may have imagined it might look like when you thought about being a parent or family member. Today, we’re going to talk about ways to connect and love your child with autism - some of the tips are simple and really can make a difference!
When we’re working with families, we have definitely heard, “I just want to snuggle them and cuddle on the couch and watch a movie with my kid!” We get that. Especially if these moments remind you of connecting with your parents and having happy childhood memories, the desire to replicate this kind of experience is totally natural! However, this might not be the way that your child connects and feels love. Ackowledging this and your feelings around is important. Having a non-neurotypical child involves some creativity and adaptation to the way you may have thought things would be. But no matter how vocal or non-vocal your child is, no matter how challenging their behaviors may be, you can find ways to connect with them and give them love they feel and feels fulfilling to you, too!
Some people feel love from others by being told they are loved or receiving other words of affirmation. Some people enjoy receiving gifts, some prefer quality time, and some need physical touch. I am sure that after reading a few of these you could immediately pinpoint, “Nope. That’s definitely NOT my child’s love language”, but it might be more challenging to identify which IS.
An easy and effective way to show your love to your child is to join them in their preferred activities or topics. We do a lot of work to help children with autism adapt and fit into our world - and that’s important! But sometimes, it’s just as valuable to join them in theirs! Pick a time and play with them doing things their way. Line those cars up together! Stack those cups! Listen to them talk to you about Septa bus routes or answer their questions about what type of computer you have. If your child is non-vocal, or working on language, that doesn’t mean you aren’t able to connect with them. Evidence-based programs show the power of modeling and connecting with children in all kinds of ways. If your child is making sounds, echo them! Reinforce their vocalization. If your child struggles with eye contact, take a moment and just sit down next to them, don’t force any eye contact for that moment. Keep your body faced towards them, get down on their level, and just be present and available. Playing the way they want to play can give you both some joy, even if it’s just for 5 minutes.
As a mom of three children five and under, I know how time intensive and exhausting doing some of their preferred activities can be - especially during a pandemic! Getting messy, breaking out a sensory bin, playing with ALL the toys can sometimes feel like just another thing on my to do list and it can really feel daunting. But, it can feel easier and fun for you too if you purposefully reframe it as a choice: have a monthly yes day! Or even yes hour. Tell yourself, “Today, I’m going to just say yes and do the things my child wants to do even if it involves shaving cream, cheerios, loud noises, and food coloring (fun).” Knowing that you’re going to have a yes moment ahead of time can help you manage and tolerate your own anxiety and any stress that comes from these activities. You can set something up ahead of time, prepare clean up (I’m a big fan of removable table clothes and towels on the ground!), know your plan, and set a time limit that feels do-able. These yes moments can be the most fun for both your kid and you when you do the prep you need to enjoy it ahead of time!
If you’re reading this and thinking, I have no idea what makes my child happy or feel loved, that’s okay. You’re not alone! Grab a piece of paper or the note app on your phone and reflect: what moments does your child show happiness? (Remember that happiness might not LOOK like smiling or laughing! Happiness might be stimming, humming, rocking, flapping, jumping, etc.) Are there specific songs, shows, toys/activities that make them happier than others? What kind of sensory input do they like? It might be helpful as well to think about YOUR experience of love and affection. How do you feel loved? How do you give it? You may find there are some expectations you’re putting on yourself or your child that you weren’t even aware of. If you want some guided prompts, you can download this worksheet here. Remember: you are the perfect, most wonderful parent for your child. You’re doing an incredible job and your child is so lucky to have you. Give yourself credit, practice self compassion, and know you are enough. Seriously. You’re a rock star.