How to love your child with autism when they don't (seem to) love you back

As I shared in this post, finding out your child has special needs is an emotional process. The journey often comes with challenges and pressures, including ongoing therapies, services, arrangements for special education, and medical care. I'd like to peel back another layer and address a topic that often isn't discussed but deserves attention and empathy. I want to discuss how it feels when your child with special needs does not seem to return your love, affection, and care.

While on a rational, logical level you know your child's disability makes it challenging to express their love, on a maternal or paternal level it can feel devastating. To take this a step further, if your child exhibits challenging, oppositional, or destructive behaviors, it can feel like pouring water into a planter to nourish a budding flower. While some days you see and feel the gratification of the flower growing, others you pour and pour, and it seems like the water runs right out the bottom of the pot.

When my son was diagnosed with autism, I felt driven to support him in any and all ways possible. Over the past four years, our son has had hundreds of therapy sessions and specialist appointments. My husband or I accompanied him to every one and applied everything we learned there at home. Every interaction with our son was focused on practicing the strategies we observed and learned at his therapies. We sprinted without ceasing for three years, until one day it struck me that all the supports, therapies, diets, strategies, and approaches we had poured our hearts and souls into would not eradicate autism from our son—that the spectrum would always be a part of him and a part of us.

This was a hard and painful realization that knocked the breath out of me. I began to see autism as an uninvited houseguest that had long outstayed its welcome; an invisible yet invincible enemy that robbed me of the love, affection, and appreciation I longed for from my son.

My child did nothing wrong. He did not choose to have autism.

When your child does not respond to you or you feel like you are exhausted and wondering why you are pouring so much into him when you are not feeling love in return, here are three things to carry with you:

    • Your child did not choose their disability.
    • Your child loves you.
    • You love your child.
Your child did not choose their disability

There were days when my son would yell at me all day, and there were many times when I felt like I couldn't put my feet on the floor and face it. I would talk with close friends with children with similar disabilities and we would lean onto each other on those days. They would remind me that my son did not choose autism. He did not choose to be confused, overwhelmed, and panicked by the world around him. Rather, his view of the world is seen through a different lens. They showed me that he is more than his diagnosis—that it is only a part of him. So when it felt all consuming, I would hold on to that. He did not choose autism, nor did autism choose him. It simply is. But each day I can choose to love him.

Your child loves you

In the early days of my son's autism diagnosis, I didn't want to know he loved me, I wanted to feel that he loved me. I wanted to connect with him and to have him reach out to me. When he didn't, I felt isolated and sad. I saw my friends taking their children on playdates and outings to the park, while my son and I largely stayed home and survived one meltdown to the next. I didn't feel loved.

Then, one day my thoughts changed. I saw that the love I had envisioned receiving from my son was not the kind of love he was able to give. And that's ok. My child loves me in a different way. He loves me when he goes to school on a difficult morning, even though it feels overwhelming to him. He loves me when he draws a picture of Darth Vader and asks me what I think of his drawing. My son loves me when he is upset and says "Mommy, I can't calm down. Can you please help me?" He loves me when he says, "Excuse me..." before blurting out every thought racing through his mind at warp speed.

My child loves me, and your child loves you. His love is just expressed in a different way.

You love your child

Before you have a baby, everyone tells you what to expect, but ultimately, being a parent is being whatever your child needs you to be. My child needs me to be a teacher. He needs me to separate my personal feelings from his behavior, and to love him purely, exactly as he is. When I love him in this way, he brings me into his world.

Autism is not the enemy. Both my child and yours are exceptional just the way they are. And so are you.