When a family receives a diagnosis of autism, among the many thoughts that can run through a parent’s mind is a sense of grief for the typical life experiences they believe their child will miss having. “One of the biggest things parents say they grieve is the chance to see their child enjoy a marriage and children and the happiness they bring,” says Jamie McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the executive director with Healing Haven in Madison Heights. But individuals with autism can and do experience love. What does love on the spectrum look like?
Our society and culture have predetermined expectations of “what love looks like” between parent and child and also between adults. And, because autism can confer differences in communication, understanding of context and sensory perceptions, people often believe that individuals with autism don’t understand or even require love and loving relationships. But nothing could be further from the truth, McGillivary says.
At Healing Haven, the ABA therapy center that provides unique services for kids and teens with autism and other developmental needs, McGillivary says she witnesses the many ways children and teens connect with their therapists and show love. And, as a professional deeply invested in the wellness of her clients and their families, McGillivary reads widely about some of the less commonly discussed aspects of life on the spectrum — and that includes love.
“Relationships can be complicated, autism or not,” she says. “The expression of love starts at a very early age as parents and others are teaching skill sets that children will need for the rest of their lives.”
Here, we share some wisdom from McGillivary about love on the spectrum.
Expressing love, understanding and acceptance
Without limiting the perspective of love to any particular age group, McGillivary shares a couple of concepts about love on the spectrum for parents and loved ones to consider.
First, there is a significant difference between feeling love and behaving in a loving way. “This is something that actually applies to everyone, not just those with autism,” she says, adding that when we consider autism as a way of being, rather than a disorder, these individual responses make a lot more sense. In essence, loving behavior can look very different from one person to the next and just because a person isn’t comfortable with hugging or kissing, doesn’t mean they don’t feel love.
Second, individuals don’t have to excel at recognizing the emotions of others to have emotions of their own. “As therapists, we teach the skills of putting yourself into another’s shoes, but, as so-called neurotypical people, do we do this when interacting with people with autism?” she asks. “That’s a great irony.”
Behavioral professionals refer to this concept as “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand the experiences of others, even if they don’t coincide with our own. “We, as the people who don’t have autism, can show the greatest amount of love simply by extending understanding and acceptance. We can recognize that we know what we want to do to help others maximize their success in life, but without true acceptance, they won’t get there. Acceptance is a true act of love from us.”
How your child expresses love
Parents can gain a lot of understanding about how their child with autism — and everyone in their lives, too — show and accept love by reading The Five Love Languages, a book series by author Gary Chapman.
“This is one of my favorite books and they do make a kid’s version,” McGillivary says. Physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts and acts of service — each individual has a preference as to what feeling loved means for them, she explains.
“To tap into this and express love in the many ways that make sense to your child is really important and it’s a skill that’s for everyone,” she says. “You can learn about your child’s love languages by observing their behavior. Are they in your space, do they say ‘mom, mom, mom, mom, mom?’ This gives you a clue that they need you to fill their bucket with quality time.”
Sometimes, if you sense that your child with autism is feeling less connected, it might be that they are receiving the wrong love language. Gifts can mean very little to someone who craves praise and acknowledgment instead.
“It’s an old belief that kids with autism don’t want to be social, but that’s just not the case. Oftentimes they feel disconnected when you are not communicating in the same way,” McGillivary says.
Here’s an example that all parents can relate to on some level. A preschooler may want to play together with a peer, but doesn’t know how to express this desire, so they kick over the peer’s just-completed block tower. “The reverse of this is when a child asks another to come and play but is ignored by the nonverbal child,” she says. “Both children have a need and a desire to be with each other but aren’t on the same page.”
McGillivary calls this “negative reciprocal actions,” and when they add up, the person trying to connect eventually gives up.
“Socially, that’s where we see a difference for kids,” she says. Kids with autism express their needs on their own terms and sometimes we have to speak their language of love. “Some kids want hugs, but will never give them from the front. They will have to back into the hug for it to be acceptable to them on a sensory level,” she says.
Love is important for everyone
As parents, we are the first role models for loving relationships. “If you are accepting and open to your child’s differences, that gives you more room to enter your child’s world,” McGillivary explains. “Follow your child’s lead and be a sleuth in how they are communicating with you and you will get more back in return.”
By recognizing your child’s loving interactions, you’re doing more than creating a loving relationship between parent and child. You’re helping them express their need for love to others. “This sets the stage for teaching pivotal social interactions that can help them make deep friendships and develop loving relationships. This is possible,” she says.
You know that good feeling you experience when you meet a person you just vibe with? You can have that same feeling with your child — grandchild, friend, relative or love interest — with autism, once you figure out how they express love.
“They will want to engage with you,” McGillivary explains. “You can open the door to have more positive social loving interactions and that’s the best gift you can give to them.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique services for kids and teens at thehealinghaven.net.