Every mother and father longs for the day to hear their child say those three magical words, “I love you.” For parents of kids with special needs though, especially those who are nonverbal, the longing turns to aching as more time passes without hearing those words pass through the sweet lips of their children. We all want to love, and be loved. But what if we’re putting too much stock in words? What if you knew how much you’re loved – without ever hearing the words themselves?
My son used to be nonverbal. He used to only scream for communication. He didn’t whine. He screamed. Unless he was happy, or sleeping, he let us know he needed something by screaming. Before the autism diagnosis, before the days of therapists invading our home multiple times a week, I wondered if he would ever learn to talk. I wondered what his life would look like if things continued as they were as he grew. And I desperately wanted to hear him tell me he loved me. There’s a sort of affirmation and confirmation in those words. When they say it themselves, not just repeating it back to you like a parrot, it’s like you know they mean it, because they chose to say it.
And then one day, he did.
We were trying to get out the door and we were a bit frantic – not that any of you have any idea what THAT is like 😉 – and I was trying to get his shoes on his little feet as quickly as possible. We made sure he had his blankie and his beloved “W” puzzle piece from his alphabet puzzle, and I pulled him into my lap on the floor as he screamed and gently slipped his foot into the first shoe. He was crying and as usual, I had no idea why. Then out of the blue, his screams sounded more like words. In plain English. He was still crying, but he cried the words out… “I love you!” Everything stopped. “Did you just say, ‘I love you’?” He nodded yes as giant tears rolled down his soft cheeks. My breath caught in my throat and I choked out, “I love you, too, Sammy!!” I squeezed him hard – too hard, because he screamed again. It felt strange, because the way he said it didn’t match the context of the situation, or his emotions. But he said it just the same. And just like that, I finished putting his shoes on his feet, and we ran out the door.
Because time doesn’t always stop when magical things happen.
This is not an encouragement not to worry because one day your kid will speak to you like mine did. I can’t possibly know what your child will or will not be able to do. And I won’t tell you just to be patient and wait for it to happen… because, what if it doesn’t? Real encouraging, Sarah. Thanks. I know. I’m sorry. But it would be wrong for me to give you a possible false hope. Not that you shouldn’t pursue therapy. Not that you should give up hope. It’s just not what I’m trying to say here.
Before he said he loved me, which has has continued to do since then, in his own time on his own terms, and in his own ways (like putting his hands in my hair and smelling it, or just climbing on top of me and laying on me), I wanted to know how I could know he loved me. I wanted to know that he understood what love was. I feared if he couldn’t understand my own love for him, maybe that’s why he couldn’t express love for me, or worse, what if he didn’t love me? And if he didn’t know what love was, how could he experience my love, or, for that matter, God’s love?
“I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Jeremiah 31:3
Maybe you’re wondering the same thing. Maybe you’re confusing the lack of acknowledgement of love from your child as a lack of experience or understanding of love. While I can’t encourage you to just wait because it will happen one day, I can encourage you to find peace that it’s there. It exists. We were designed with an innate desire to love and be loved. Even if you can’t see it, it’s there. Even if you can’t see that your child knows you love him, believe that he does. Every time you feed her, she knows. Every time you clothe and diaper him, he knows. Every time you squeeze her tightly to re-ground her body, whose sensory system is out of control, she knows. Every time you tuck him in at night after a long bedtime routine involving weighted blankets, books, songs, lights, sound boxes, breathing treatments, medicine, and hugs and kisses (if he lets you), he knows.
“I just want to hear him tell me he loves me.” I know. I know you do. But if he can’t – whether for right now or for the rest of his life – what might he be doing to show you he loves you that you might be missing? Does he lean into you, knowing you’ll protect his ears from loud noises? Does she stroke your hair absentmindedly? I can’t even fathom all the various ways your particular child might be trying to say, “I love you” without the ability to say the words themselves. That’s something you’ll have to look for, and choose to see for what it is. Maybe she’s petting your hair because she likes the feeling. But what if it’s her way of connecting with you – even if it satisfies a sensory need? That means you’re literally meeting her needs, and she is allowing you to do so. That’s love.
Don’t let a lack of eye contact or speech convince you that they don’t love you. Your child loves you because you’re mom. Or dad, or grandma, or aunt, or cousin, or brother, or sister. Even if they can’t show love in a conventional “appropriate” way, look for how they are showing it in their own way. Every child wants to be loved, and does love. It’s just going to be a little different than how you originally thought it would be. And that’s okay.
Keep loving your child. Look for how they love you, or simply believe that it’s true. That is the only thing I can guarantee. You, dear one, are loved.
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