One of the first signs of autism I noticed in our son, Harry, occurred near the end of his year in kindergarten. Almost overnight, he began having difficulty making eye contact with me.
As we went through the diagnosis process and I learned more about autism and Asperger’s syndrome (the spot on the spectrum Harry seems to be orbiting), I noticed Harry only showed his mom and I affection while being a ”cuddly hamster.” What’s a cuddly hamster? It’s when Harry talks in a very high nasal voice using squeaks and baby talk (“wuv” instead of love, “da-da” instead of dad, etc).
As I sat there, watching a movie I had been excited to see for a long time, I was instead thinking about how my 7-½-year-old son could not share a similar sentiment with me. It shredded my heart. After that realization, it felt like a scab that kept getting ripped off every time I saw a post on Facebook about how moms’ and dads’ hearts melt when their kids tell them they love them. I was not in a great place.
Then I had an idea. I was going to teach my son how to tell me he loved me. I just had to figure out how.
Let me take a minute to say this: I know my son loves me. I see it every day in a million different ways. My goal was to help him learn how to express his feelings in a way that is easily recognized.
Routine and repetition are big deals in Harry’s world and have been since he was born. One more than most: Bedtime. Bedtime in our house has been a whole family affair since before Harry was in a big boy bed and, while I don’t do a dramatic retelling of The Kiss That Missed or sing You Are My Sunshine anymore, attendance for all at tuck-in time is still mandatory.
A few weeks after the whole “I love you 3000” thing, I decided to try to use the structure of bedtime to teach Harry to say “I love you” and you know what?
IT FREAKING WORKED!
Here’s what we do: Harry climbs the ladder of his loft bed so he is at eye level with his mom and me, and we say “I love you, Harry.” He then replies, “I love you, Mama” and “I love you, Dada” still in a slightly “hamster” voice but with direct eye contact, followed by a darn good hug. That is the best part of my day.
Did it happen this way the first time? No. The 10th time? No way. The important thing, though, is that we kept trying every night (and continue to). We had to say “I love you, Harry.” Not just “I love you” or “I love you, buddy” or “pal” or “turkey butt” and expect a reply. After several weeks, he became more authentic in his words and gestures, and making eye contact seems less of a struggle.
The best part? Telling Harry’s grandma about this and then watching her light up the first time he ever said, “I love you, Nana.”
We still get other “I love yous” in hamster form, but Harry recently announced that the hamster is “retiring” on his eighth birthday. I do not doubt for a second that he really means it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Sheldon of our Columbus (Ohio) Dads Group is a photographer, social media consultant and creator of the website Small Steps are Giant Leaps, where a version of this first appeared. On that site, he documents his adventures as a stay-at-home dad with his son “Astronaut” Harrison. Between school drop-off and pick-up, Aaron loves sharing his experience to help others tell their story in unique, informative, and entertaining ways though his company, Documentary Dads.”