I was flipping through recently developed photographs looking, as I usually do, for the pictures that stand out. I’m always looking for those special images that capture a precious expression, a beautiful face or a special memory. As I searched through the pile of mediocre pictures, I came across one that brought tears to my eyes.
My son Daniel was perched in a tree looking down at his Daddy with a smile of recognition and delight. My husband Tom was affectionately returning Daniel’s smile, echoing this delight. For most families, this scene would be typical; but parents of children with autism know just how precious it is to have your child recognize your presence, and to return your love and affection.
I painfully remembered the rejection we had once felt from Daniel. Years ago, he showed no recognition of us, and in fact seemed to be tortured by us. Our presence was interfering, rather than comforting. Our touch seemed to be painful, rather than soothing. Our affection triggered anxiety, rather than comfort. Our voices were meaningless, rather than familiar. Our love was unnoticed, unwanted and seemingly unnecessary.
We picked Daniel up out of his crib in the morning, and he would push our faces away. We desperately wanted a good morning kiss, but instead we were greeted with that Tom termed “our good morning slap in the face.” We longed to feel a connection from Daniel, some sort of recognition that we existed in his world. We wanted to be known, we wanted to be loved, and we wanted desperately to be needed. It was quite obvious, though, that we were not needed. I remember many tearful conversations when Tom would say “I just want him to love me back.”
Things have changed dramatically. Daniel recognizes us, seeks us out and returns our affection. It didn’t just “happen,” though. Like everything else in his life, Daniel needed to be systematically taught. He needed to be taught that I am called Mommy, and Tom is called Daddy. He needed to be taught to tolerate our touch, to attend to our voices, to understand our words, to recognize our faces, and to respond to our affection. And we needed to be taught how to establish ourselves as meaningful in Daniel’s life. Through years of training and practice, we were eventually able to teach Daniel how to love us, and we were able to create within Daniel a desire to be with us. His love, hugs, kisses and smiles are now a part of our everyday lives.
In the day-to-day struggles of teaching Daniel, trying to meet his needs, structuring his time and guiding his behavior, the road ahead can still seem so long. I am often overwhelmed by how far we still need to go, and frustrated by the uncertainty of where we’ll end up. On this day, though, as I looked at that photograph, I reminded myself of just how far we have come. I realized that sometimes, I need to look back, to find the strength to look ahead.
Note: This article originally appeared in an issue of Science in Autism Treatment, the newsletter of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT). It may not be republished or reprinted without advance permission from ASAT. Email us for reprint permission.