I watched him walk away from me in the dusty barn we call horseback riding home, curious as to why he was heading for the door. I followed behind, helmet in hand, and saw two middle-aged woman standing in the entrance, chatting with one another. I watched as Justin approached them and stopped, and curious, I stopped too. His back was to me, and all I saw was him gently place his hands on both women’s cheeks, look into their eyes, then walk back to me, grinning. The women assured me all was okay and that his smile was a mile wide as he looked into these two strangers’ eyes. My boy returned to me, asked for a juice, then continued his usual pacing back and forth as he waited for his horse to be ready. I have no idea why he approached these women he doesn’t know (usually it’s pretty teenaged girls, and then he wants a hug or kiss).
There is so much I’ll never know.
My fourteen-year-old son is severely autistic and non-verbal. There is not a wide circle of individuals he has connected with in his life. I know that when I take him places and prompt him to say hello to people often all they see is a boy gazing off at a point somewhere behind them, or a disconnected stare. Most of the time strangers will not get a reciprocal “hi” out of my boy; for Justin, it will be as if they don’t exist. I’ve seen this happen countless times out in the community, when picking up my youngest from karate, or when we attend cub scout events. He only gives what we call the “forehead hug” to his extended family, and he has known and lived fairly close to them his entire life. Frankly, based on just these encounters, anyone could think he doesn’t connect at all.
But for those in his inner circle, for those he truly adores, he is a world of compassion and love.
My son’s true loves are a few of his teachers from school, his grandma, his dad, (sometimes) his little brother, and me. For us there is a world of affection, including snuggles on the couch, and what I like to call our “ten minute hug time” which must transpire every morning or he won’t get dressed, and must be the capstone to every evening or he won’t go to bed. On the few occasions I’ve cried in front of my son I’ve always received an embrace, and often throughout the day he just plants one on me, looks into my eyes, grins, and walks away, not even manding for a thing.
For those special souls, he is a “hugger,” just like his mom.
I write about this and tell people how he acts with his tribe because I want them to know he feels compassion, empathy, and love, because it may not always be apparent when encountering my son for the first or even the fiftieth time. My boy, despite not talking, despite not interacting in a traditional way with most people, has the full range of emotion we neurotypical folk do.
I remember when he was first diagnosed at seventeen months I feared that closeness we’d always had since birth and his “snuggly soul” would disappear- my fears were totally ungrounded. Thirteen years later we are deeply connected, my boy and me- there is no doubt of our commitment to one another.
I just want everyone who meets him, present and future, to know how deeply he feels, that his core is love.
And I am forever grateful that the affection he extends to his posse is reciprocal, returned many times over. He is loved. He is cherished.
He doesn’t even need to say the words.
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