“C’mere, teddy bear.”
When my son says this to me I know he wants to cuddle and give me a hug. He leans toward my cheek and I am not sure if I am going to get a kiss or a raspberry; with either one we both giggle. Henry has an infectious smile and a twinkle in his eyes that only mean trouble!
He knows funny. He teases with the purpose of getting a laugh…or getting away with something. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes he tries to be sly about it, keeping a blank face, his mouth set in a straight line. But he just can’t control the tiny twitch that reveals his dimple and then he’ll grin and when he can’t hold that back he will give you a full, gorgeous smile.
Henry tells us he loves us, spontaneously, not just as a rote response to us saying it first. But he didn’t for a long time. He couldn’t identify emotions in pictures and certainly not in others or in himself. He has always been one to cuddle but on his terms, of course. Expressing his experiences and emotions are difficult concepts.
I wondered (and worried) whether the concept of feelings, emotions, would be something that Henry would ever understand. Sure, he was slowly learning the appropriate words. But would he, could he learn to really connect on the emotional level with others.
“I love you, Henry.”
“I love you, too.” No real inflection of tone, no sense of feeling behind his words. Just memorization. I learned to accept that and I would take those words into my heart and there I would place feeling into them for him. For me.
Throughout our days I try to show examples of happy faces and sad faces, angry faces, faces that are surprised. I point out these emotions in his favorite TV shows or movie, on my face, on his sister’s face. I try to get him to copy my expression. I encourage him to point to a happy face or sad face.
I have been met with a blank expression. Many more times Henry would just walk away or start talking about something else. There was no interested or even a hint of comprehension of anything outside of himself.
And then one day we were coming home from school and from the back seat I hear Henry say to Lucy, “How was your day, Lucy?” I held my breath wondering if he would just continue to talk through it about whatever he was seeing in his mind but there was quiet. He was waiting for Lucy to answer!
Soon after that, one evening Lucy was crying about something at bedtime and Henry jumped out of his bed to give her a toy. Suddenly he was dancing around making silly faces. He was trying to cheer her up! Is it possible that he was slowly “getting it”?
Another evening, big sister Molly was in tears over some homework. Her voice was raising in frustration and Henry asked,”Molly, what’s wrong? Why are you sad?”
Molly being too upset to talk, I answered for her, “Molly is sad because she is frustrated about her homework.”
Henry turned back to Molly and said, “Molly you should check your options map.” And then he proceeded to list all of the “green-light” options for what you can do when you are mad or frustrated or upset. And still then continued on to SHOW her how to take deep breaths and count! (Score a perfect 10 for ABA!) He was making the connection between feelings and actions.
Some may say that Henry is just learning to memorize the correct response and not really feeling what he is saying. I think that is part of learning about emotions. He is learning to put words with feelings AND feeling into his words. When he spontaneously smiles at me and says, “I love you, Mom.” His tone changes. I no longer have to put my own feelings onto his words. He is doing that all on his own! We are having to prompt him less and less about saying thank you when he receives a gift and when he does say “thank you” there is a tone of sincerity.
Henry does have feelings and he is beginning to understand those feelings. I don’t wonder about him getting this concept any longer. He sometimes has trouble expressing them but I do believe this will come in time. You can see he is trying. He will learn to do this in his own funny, quirky way which may be very different from most of us but I think that is okay. That’s how he rolls.
It may seem funny or odd to have to practice emotions and appropriate emotional responses. For us, our daily lives are filled with practice. Everything is practice. Feelings and emotions are such difficult concepts for most people on the spectrum. Deficits in this particular area is one of the criteria for being on the autism spectrum to begin with! So, we’ll just keep practicing.
Last night as Grant and I were tucking the two little ones in their beds I heard Henry say to Grant, “Happy Valentine’s day, Dad.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Henry. I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad. Now you have to tell mommy happy Valentine’s day and give her a hug.”
Grant responded as I watched from Lucy’s bed and wondered how this was going to play out. “Okay, I will”. Grant turned to say goodnight to Lucy and Henry said, “No, now Dad. You have to tell her now and give her a hug and kiss.” He was watching us for practice I guess? Silly little dude.
So, Grant and I turned toward each other and wished each other a happy Valentine’s day. We said “I love you” to each other as we hugged.
“Uh, Dad, you gotta give her a kiss, too!” So we kissed. Both kids were giggling and we proceeded to switch sides of the room so Grant was saying goodnight to Lucy and I went to say goodnight to Henry. He threw his arms around my neck and said,” Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day, little dude. You are our funny Valentine and we love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.”
There is no better Valentine’s gift than that!