Will a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder limit my emotional connection to my child? As parents we all want to cuddle, kiss and hold our children. Not only do they feel good to hold but they smell good too - most of the time. But what is a parent to do when their child pulls away from their touch, refuses to be embraced or won't hug back?
There is a misconception that children with Autism are incapable of showing affection but many have found they are indeed capable of expressing love, they just do it in non-conventional ways. Another theory is that children with Autism feel emotions so fiercely that they are easily overwhelmed with what to do with them. All children are wired differently and your child's emotional availability will depend on where he or she lies on the Autism spectrum.
The pain of realizing your child may never display the level of physical affection that you had hoped for is not to be treated lightly. It is a loss of an ideal you held about parenting and should be addressed. Accepting it as fact is the first step that will help you move beyond and open yourself up to other signals that may not look the same but carry the same message.
All parents anticipate a reciprocal response to their physical displays of affection but if that is all you seek you can set yourself up for constant disappointment. Recognizing that your child may never initiate a hug or say I love you is very troubling to accept. As unfortunate as this is, it is a situation that calls for a major shift in perspective. As a parent in such circumstances, you have to lower your expectations, increase your patience and develop a special mindset in order to cope. Here are some suggestions to help you get started.
- Invade your child's world.
As adults we tend to make the mistake of expecting our children to conform to our world and respond as we do but a much more productive approach, especially with a child on the Autism spectrum, is to invade their world first. The more a parent can experience the world through their child's Autistic lens, the more easily one can understand and accept their child's unique way of relating. Making an effort to enter into your child's world will help you discover the particular nuances in his behavior that signify expressions of affection and a real connection to you.
- Play detective.
The possibility of a meaningful and loving connection lies in your ability to look upon your circumstance as a new adventure and adopt the role of investigator. As you become alert and watchful for those slight gestures and signs that say, "I care" - you may be pleasantly surprised at what you find. That blank stare focused in your direction may be saying a lot more than you think.
Here are some clues to look for when trying to determine how your child shows affection:
• Occasional eye contact
• Letting you play with or touch a favorite item
• A slight touch or pat
• Drawing you a picture
• A certain noise or tone of voice
• A handshake or a high five
• Squeals of laughter
- Keep hope alive.
Never give up that your child will be able to learn how to show affection towards you because affection is a learned behavior that all children can be taught to some degree. Once you have dissected how you child relates to her environment you can begin to pull her into your world and teach her other ways of relating. Children on the Autism spectrum just need more time and practice to learn how to express themselves spontaneously.
As you gather clues and develop a greater awareness of how your child relates to everything around him or her you will detect revealing patterns. Being alert to behaviors that show a level of caring, even if minimal, will help give the ongoing bonding process with your child a boost. Eventually you and your child will find your own rhythm, your own special dance that says 'I love you'.
Connie Hammer, MSW, parent educator, consultant and coach, guides parents of young children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to uncover abilities and change possibilities. Visit her website http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com to get your FREE resources - a parenting e-course, Parenting a Child with Autism - 3 Secrets to Thrive and a weekly parenting tip newsletter, The Spectrum.
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