Teaching Love To My Non-Verbal Son

To say I taught my non-verbal son “love” is a sweet and beautiful sentiment. I am sure that many people, reading that sentence, can relate to it with people in their own life. After all, it’s a nice thought about a real emotion I’ve shared with both my children, both on and off the autism spectrum.

While it’s true that I taught him the feeling of love through my time with him, that’s not what I am talking about here. I mean it literally. I taught my son “love”.

Long overdue, I realized that it had been a while since we adopted a new hand motion. For us, this form of communication is as old as he is. It started when he was still an infant. I’d ask him, “Who does Daddy love?” Then, I’d take his little hand, make him tap his own chest, and yell out in a high-pitched voice, “Me!”

This interaction with my baby had long-term effects. I didn’t realize then that he would not, as of today, speak a word verbally. I had no idea that this motion would be a lasting thing in our lives.

Yet, it is. Today, I ask Lucas who I love and he taps his own chest. I am so proud that, out of everything he has learned, this one goes back the furthest.

father son kiss cheek

This cute little “me” motion is great and – full transparency – it kind of works if I switch out the name. So when his sister wants to be included, I simply say, “Who does your sister love?” Nine times out of ten, he taps his chest.

Love, though, isn’t just from me to him. Throughout Lucas’s life, he will find a great deal of it. After all, with such a charming little personality, he’s sure to find himself surrounded by people who value him as much as I do. He is bound to find love that isn’t limited to me.

So, about a month ago, I began working on the motions for “I Love You.” I had him tap his chest, cross his arms across his body into a self-hug, and then point outward for “you”. He had no idea what the point of all this was, but I worked on it.

I knew going in that “you” was a tough one. After all, none of his motions require gesturing to another person. He can tap your shoulder or point to a cookie, but I have never actually seen him point to another person. I knew from the start that was the biggest hurdle.

Every day, I’d say, “Luuuuuucas…I love you!” Then I would maneuver his arms and have him do the motion. I waited for it to click in. I didn’t know how long it would take.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take long. A short time after we started, I said “I love you, Lucas.” He looked up at me and did the most important part of the whole motion. He did the self-hug motion for love. It was the highlight of my month.

dad son autism

My son doesn’t have verbal language. I accepted that a long time ago. It’s not as needed as one would assume and, having seen people with language, I don’t envy others for what he doesn’t have. My boy is sweet and calm. A lack of words hasn’t caused him any agitation because we, as a family, have done what we can to understand him through other means.

Emotions have always been a tough road. He can use his device to ask for food, drinks, and toys. However, things like “happy,” “sad”, and “love” are all a bit abstract for him, despite those buttons being laid out on his communication iPad. They are rarely used.

Still, though, he needs to express himself. There are real feelings inside of him and I want him to be able to share them. That’s one of my many jobs as his father. I want him to be heard, in any capacity he can.

Does he understand the “love” that he’s signing? I don’t know. A part of me feels sure he does. After all, he knows the word comes up when I’m being sweet toward him. He knows the pitch of my voice matches the one that first taught him “who does Daddy love?” He understands the context for the motion he makes. He seems to “get it.”

Even if he doesn’t, it’s fine. We have a lifetime to help him grasp the meaning behind it. Over time, if not already, he will see the responses people give to him when he makes the adorable universal gesture for it. He’ll watch their faces light up and experience the feelings of love he gets in return. That’s what’s important. That’s the love he gets to express and receive.

My son might never understand every single thing, but I always want him to know how much he means to me. Steps like this place importance on that lesson. No one deserves love more than he does.



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