It is seriously one of my favorite things in the world. I’ll be sitting in my office, typing away on the computer, when my son will come in, take my hand, and lead me into the den.
Once there, I discover he’s watching one of his favorite videos, Raffi and the Rise and Shine Band. The moment I see the kiddie crooner in his 1993-style shirt, I know the reason I’ve been summoned. It’s because we’re coming up on that special part of the show.
Raffi, standing in the crowd, is singing “Happy and You Know It” and he’s just about to throw the audience for a loop. The assumption is that he will say “clap your hands” as the action to take next, but in reality, he says something else. It’s my job to say it at the same time he does.
If you’re happy and you know it…moo like a cow. Moooo!
I continue, in unison, with my boy’s favorite musician.
I tricked you. Mmmm-hmmm-hmmmm. That’s moosic to my ears. Mooving right along…
As I do, Lucas hops up and down with delight, shouting screams of excitement. His face beams with happiness and my heart melts. He’ll take my hand again, bring me to the couch, and have me take a seat. From there, he hops along cheering to his favorite concert, coming over sporadically to tap my shoulder as if to say, “Good. You’re still there.”
This story might surprise some people. To the outside world, my son can appear to be aloof and indifferent to people. As a non-verbal boy with autism, it often makes him inaccessible to the outside world. They assume he’s not present in the moment or that he doesn’t care about having others around. It’s a superficial view, but it’s one that I can certainly understand.
Now, this is the part where I am supposed to say that, as his father, we have always had this magical relationship. Harps play. Doves fly. My voice echoes as I preach about how there never was a second thought that this universal bond my son and I share would exist today and into the great infinite beyond. We knew from the moment he arrived, we hit the ground running, and it happened overnight. It just came easy. There never was a doubt. I could totally tell you that.
But I would be lying.
The truth is, none of this was simple by any stretch of the imagination. What Lucas and I share today is the result of hard work, dedication, and constant reinforcement. It’s something that, I feared every day early on, was going to be impossible. It was, without a doubt, the most agonizing worry I ever had in my entire life.
To remind myself, I think back to his first in-home speech therapist. Ironically when talking about a speech teacher, words can’t describe how terrible she was. Rude, opinionated, inept, and more all spring to mind but, especially since she came into our lives when we were most vulnerable, even those adjectives don’t do her justice. To say the experience was unpleasant would be a drastic understatement.
One day, in the midst of one of her bizarre lessons, I walked into the room and Lucas, as he was oft to do at that age, didn’t budge. He just looked down and continued fiddling with the blocks in front of him. For some insane reason, our professional was not only shocked, but she chose to express it in the most hurtful way possible.
Oh my God. Did you see that? He didn’t even look up at you. You walked in and he didn’t even move. It’s like you’re not even here. Like he didn’t even care that you walked into the room. Like you didn’t even matter.
I was stunned silent, frozen in place, and uttered the only thing I could think of.
Yeah. That’s kind of the whole reason why you’re here.
I was very much aware of that aspect of his personality and even more aware that my son, just around two years old, expressed no interest in me at all. It weighed down on my shoulders all day and kept me up at night. I didn’t need Dr. Dipstick to screech it out from my living room floor.
Honestly, it would be great to pretend like Lucas and I always had the relationship we had now, but that would be dishonest and, for a parent reading this right now who is facing this same struggle, it would be doing them a disservice. I’m not writing this to rewrite my own history. I’m writing it to remind myself how far I’ve come and tell others with children like mine that you should always push forward to create bonds, even when you fear you never will.
It takes work, though. It took saying hello to my son every time I entered the room and goodbye every time I left. Even when I could swear he didn’t care, even when others would silently roll their eyes on the inside, I would lean down into his face and wave. When he wouldn’t so much as turn his head up to me, I would take his hand, scrunch it up, and make him wave back.
I know that some may have found it needless. I didn’t. And now, today he waves hello and goodbye. That’s why it was needed.
It took hugging him. Every single time it felt warranted in my heart, he got hugged. He might have stood there like a statue and not hugged back, but I hugged. He may have pushed me away, and I let him ago, but the next day I hugged again. Unless he expressed discomfort, I would hug him and kiss him at the same rate a parent would hug any of their children.
Again, some probably thought it was unimportant. Today, though, he hugs me when he sees me. He kisses me on the cheek too. That’s why it was important.
I talked to him when it didn’t appear like he was listening. I read to him when he stared off into the distance. I played with him when we both had other things to do. I was present in his life when he didn’t acknowledge my presence. I was always his dad and I always reminded him he was my son.
Because of all that, we have what we have today. I never surrendered to those fears or wrote off my boy because the future seemed impossible to change. If there was any chance that we could have the relationship that I envisioned rather than the one I feared, I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen.
That’s what I did. That’s what we both did. I’m glad that I did. I never gave up on him. He never gave up on me. And seeing what that effort accomplished, I know we never will.