NO Hugs, NO Kisses!
Last week, I spoke about teaching autistic children to be affectionate. Many readers were touched by our family’s efforts to train our son to be warm and spontaneous. Some parents with autistic children, however, had their misgivings.
I was told of a story about a mother X who imposed strictly a “No hugs and no kisses” rule on her autistic son Y. She was concerned that the teenage boy would get into trouble someday if he displays affection inappropriately to strangers. One day, the mother X even punished her boy Y by making him hug a tree for several hours after he had asked his mom for a hug. The punishment was the mother’s way of protecting her son from getting into trouble.
I felt troubled and told my wife about the story. She replied thoughtfully, “We’ve been through it ourselves. Let’s not be quick to judge others. She must have her reasons. Anyway, every family needs time to work their problems out.”
My wife is right. There may be more than meets the eye to the story. Perhaps, the boy had gotten into some serious trouble. Or perhaps, the mom had done everything she could but failed to get the child to understand. We do not know the full story enough. But one thing I know for certain is, the suppression of the emotional needs may lead to dire consequences for the family.
Three years ago, Singapore was shaken by the news of a mother, a primary caregiver of her seven year old autistic child, who threw the latter over the parapet to his death. The mother was depressed over her marital woes and physical exhaustion, which she believed was caused by her autistic son. And one could only imagine the desperation and pain the mother experienced for the murder to be committed one day before her 42nd birthday.
I trembled at the thought of seeing such tragedy recurring. For days, I thought hard about my family situation. My family was nowhere near the brink of desperation, but the fatigue and stress had been mounting to a point where smiles and laughter at home had become scarce. I instinctively knew that more had to be done to bring happiness back. But I did not know how.
Gleaning lessons from this tragedy, I became even more convinced that a spouse must share the burden of caregiving wholeheartedly. And parents must not suffer in silence or denial, hoping that their problems would just go away. I constantly reminded myself to learn and seek help from others whenever necessary. And most importantly, to stay hopeful always. Still, raising an autistic child remained a challenge as we had to cope with one problem after another.
Stop seeing the child as the problem
Finally one day, it dawned on me that parents must stop seeing their autistic child as the problem. Autism posed problems to the child and the family, but the child did not. No child should be blamed for his or her medical condition.
If parents see their autistic child as a “problem”, there will be a limit to how much they can shoulder the lifelong heartache and grind of unremitting caregiving. But if they can separate the child from the troubles they create, parents will be able to handle problems in their stride. Over time, we have become more composed and skilful in dealing with all sorts of problems, from bizarre behaviour to severe meltdown that erupted at school and home.
The biggest encouragement came from the child himself. As we continued our efforts to train our boy to be affectionate, we began to experience more moments of joy. The son who was a constant worry becomes the wellspring of our family happiness.
Cherish joyous moments in daily life
Here is an episode of joyous moments that occured last Sunday. I found bouquets of beautiful flowers on sale in the supermarket.
Turning to my fifteen year old autistic son Kyan, I asked, “Do you want to buy flowers?”
“Yes. I want to buy flowers.” Kyan replied.
I probed, “Who do you want to buy the flowers for?”
I was half-expecting his answer to be “Papa”.
Kyan replied without hesitation, “Mama!”
I laughed and thought to myself, “Mom still comes first to the children no matter how hard I try.”
I knew my wife was not into flowers, but this was a not-to-be-missed opportunity for my boy to practise affection. I told Kyan, “Bring the flowers to mama and tell her!”
Kyan quickly grabbed a bouquet of flowers and ran to his mom who was preoccupied with buying grocery. Shoving the bouquet excitedly into his mom’s hands, Kyan remarked loudly, “I want to buy flowers for Mama!”
His mom, looking pleasantly surprised, thanked him and immediately gave the jubilant boy a hug while quietly slipping the bouquet to me.
“Now that you have given flowers to mama, what do you give papa?” I teased.
Just as I was wondering what he would say, Kyan thought for a moment and said, “Kiss!”
With that, Kyan leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on my right cheek
I was overjoyed and felt blessed.
Make it a priority to help autistic children become affectionate
Contrary to the conventional belief that parental love is inexhaustible and unconditional, the agony of unrequited love from an autistic child does take a toll on caregivers. Make it a top priority to help your child become affectionate.
Do not let any concern that the child may display inappropriate affectionate behaviour with others get in the way between you with your child. Once your child feels loved and safe, it will be easier to teach him the boundaries.
For a start, practise often at home proper display of affection between you and your child. All it takes is just two persons to love and feel loved. It costs nothing and the reward is priceless.
William W K Tan (aka Uncle William)
26 July 2019, Friday