It’s every parent’s nightmare. Their child has been diagnosed with autism, and their minds immediately rush to the question ‘What if my child never says “I love you”?’ It feeds into the myth that Autistic people don’t have feelings, don’t experience love. It’s just that. A myth.
Autistic children, and Autistic adults are indeed capable of love. We just have a tendency to express it in unusual ways. Take info-dumping in highly verbal kids for example. I’ve looked at the way I communicate with the people around me, I’ve analysed my interactions with neurotypical folks and with other Autistic folks (and compared notes with the latter) and I’ve discovered things. One of those things is that I don’t waste my info-dumps on people I’m not interested in befriending. I don’t info-dump just for the sake of it.
Neurotypical kids of a certain age will exhibit a very particular and very obvious behaviour when new people come to visit. If they like you, they’ll bring you their toys. Essentially, they’ll share their treasures with you. They’ve brought something they care about to show to you in order to form a connection and to display trust. They trust you with their treasures, and they’re seeking something in common with you that they can discuss. It’s like the very first step towards holding conversations.
Autistic folk hang on to this behaviour. It might be obvious, in the form of “let me show you this extensive collection of obscure items”, or it might be less so, in the form of info-dumping. For many Autistic people, pieces of information are their treasures, and by sharing with you, they’re attempting to form a connection. This can also be extended to asking you about something. If I want to make a connection with you, but I’m not sure I can provide common ground, I’ll ask about something I’m interested in that I believe you have knowledge about. It’s a compliment. I’m interacting with you rather than going to Google with my questions.
So we show care for people in slightly different ways. We might not be into hugs or kisses because of sensory difficulties, we might need a lot of our own space, and we might not be interested in socialising with you the way you expect. These are just things the neurotypical world has to learn to live with, they’re part of who we are. They’re not evidence that we don’t feel affection for others, or that we have no interest in socialising, they’re not evidence that we’re broken. We’re just different, and part of Autism Acceptance is accepting that we communicate our feelings differently.
We also experience our feelings differently. I’ve talked to and read the work of plenty of Autistic people who have trouble distinguishing between the physical sensations that come from needs, like hunger, illness, injury, or emotion. Personally, I wish my body came with a handy flowchart to help me decide if I’m feeling an emotion or experiencing illness. My prime example is sad and cold are pretty much the same thing for me. When I’m down, my body temperature drops and I start shivering. It sometimes takes me a while to catch on to the fact that I need more than a jumper to make myself feel better.
Love, love is a strange feeling. It’s like the feeling in your chest just before you have to laugh. It’s a pressure like when you take a deep breath in. It’s very close to the excitement special areas of interest can bring. It does not, however, exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, for me. It comes from being understood, and respected, from having things in common with someone, from feeling supported and from knowing someone has my back. It’s about trust and sharing and the all important having something in common.
I do love. I do connect. I do feel. I just express it differently.
I don’t love people irrationally. I don’t love people because they share characteristics with me, because of proximity, or because of some socially perceived debt I’m thought to owe them. So I don’t automatically love my family.
Those of a sensitive nature, look away now, because I’m going to be stereotypical levels of brutally Autistically honest.
I don’t love my Mum.
I get that we’re genetically similar. I get that she chose to have me, she created me, raised me, clothed me, fed me, paid for school trips. I get that she loves me, and did her best with me. But she never understood me. In my teens, when I was struggling with my undiagnosed autism, bullying, schoolwork, social anxiety, depression and uncertainty about what I was going to do with my life, she pushed me to be just like her. My special interests didn’t interest her, so they were unhealthy. Despite the bullying, she pressured me to socialise with other kids my age, with the threat that she wouldn’t allow me to attend university. We argued.
Throughout all of the arguments, there was a common theme. When I picked up on it, she was very upset. We had nothing in common. No similar likes, no similar aspirations, no common ground. Musical tastes at opposite ends of the spectrum, Interests so different that we couldn’t effectively communicate. Conversations were a barrage of social information that was useless to me. Someone in the village who I’d only ever heard of was in hospital, or had died, or some cousin of a friend of a relative had got married to someone else my ancestors had some vague connection to. I was interested in facts, ideas, inventing things. Mum seemed very interested in village gossip.
We had nothing in common, and her response was “How can you say that?”. She seemed to feel some kind of entitlement to a relationship with me that I couldn’t, and still can’t fathom. Relationships are built on common ground, on give and take and shared interests. Sharing genetic information is not a good enough reason to love someone despite them seeming to make no effort to understand and accept who you are.
This entitlement has carried on, despite me being grown up and moved out. I had a minor surgery scheduled, and I had it all handled. I knew who was going to be looking after me during my bed-rest, I knew how I was going to deal with transport, I had successfully adulted at the whole thing. Mum pops over to visit me, and without consulting me, arranges with my housemate that she will stay in the spare room, will manage all my care, and will BE THERE the whole time. Yeah. No.
The last thing I want while I’m freaking out over them sticking needles in me is my mother there telling me to get over it (which has reasonably consistently been her approach to my phobias, the words “Don’t be silly!” still ring in my ears now.)
The biggest thing, though, wasn’t that she wanted to be there, but that she didn’t even ask whether I had plans. She assumed that she was welcome simply because she wanted to be there. She displayed a sense of entitlement to be part of my life that baffles me. Why this completely illogical social expectation that one puts one’s comfort and true feelings aside simply to please another based on genetic similarity?
So I guess what I’m trying to say is. Yes, your Autistic child can still love you, yes, they can still display affection, and yes, one day they might even put it into words in the socially acceptable way and say “I love you”. However, you’re not automatically entitled to their affection. If your child is capable of showing you affection and they aren’t doing, maybe you need to consider the following question:
“What have I done that’s worthy of their love?”
If you’ve spent their entire life trying to normalise them, bend them to your will, fix their broken brains. If all they’ve heard is that you wish they were someone else, that they would turn into the perfect neurotypical child you imagined when you found out you were having them. No, you’re not entitled to their love. Even if you changed every diaper, fulfilled every material need, even if you meant well and did your best, you do not get to dictate your child’s feelings for you based on a perceived debt. That’s practically blackmail.
The good news is, there’s still room for you to try to understand them as they are, to try to connect with them halfway (and I mean actually halfway, not as close to halfway as you feel like going). You can still turn it around and try to have a relationship with them. All you have to do is let go of that idea that they have to love you because they’re your kids.