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Will There Be Cuddles, Hugs, and ‘I love you’s'?

Once a parent receives the news that their child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) there are many confusing emotions that consume their thoughts. But as the fallout from the shock, denial and grief start to settle many questions begin to find a voice.

Will this autism diagnosis limit my emotional connection to my child?

Will there be cuddles, hugs and ‘I love you’s’?

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’s a common misconception that children with autism lack empathy and are incapable of showing affection. Baloney! I have seen too many scenarios that contradict this notion.

Individuals with an ASD are indeed very capable of expressing love and affection, they just do it in non-conventional ways. All children are wired differently and their emotional availability and ability to physically express love will depend on many factors.

Cuddles and hugs are great and most 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’s a situation that requires a major shift in perspective. If you are a parent in circumstances such as these, it’s important 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. 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 such an effort will help you discover the particular nuances in your child's behavior that signify expressions of affection and a real connection to you.

- Identify sensory issues. Talk to your child’s occupational therapist (OT) about his sense of touch. A hyper-sensitivity to touch and texture could be the obstacle that keeps your child from getting too close. A brain that has difficulty processing tactile input can create havoc with anyone’s capacity for cuddles, hugs, and other forms of physical displays of affection. If your child does not have an OT, I highly recommend the book, The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowitz.

- 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 (one that she controls)

Drawing you a picture

A certain noise or tone of voice

A handshake or a high five

- 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. Once you have dissected how your 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 intentionally or spontaneously express themselves.

As you gather clues and develop a greater awareness of how your child relates to everything around him you will detect revealing patterns. Being alert to behaviors that show a level of caring, even if minimal, will give the ongoing bonding process between you and your child a boost. Eventually you and your child will find your own rhythm, your own special dance that says ‘I love you’.

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