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One day last week I asked Georgia, as I do every day, what she did at school. Typically her answer is one serious word: ‘Work,’ without any further elaboration. But that day when I probed further, she said she had been in art class. I asked what she was making.

“A Mother’s Day card,” was her reply. “Who’s that for?” I asked saucily. The reply: “For Mommy!!”

I don’t really need the card – that snippet of conversation was a gift in and of itself. On Mother’s Day, we show love and appreciation to our moms. As for me, I find myself thinking about what I do to earn my child’s love, and what I do to make that relationship as good as possible. What does love mean when that child has autism? What do I know about how my child ‘loves’ me?

I’m currently reading a book that is very good on the challenges of parenting kids with special needs. It’s called Far From the Tree and is written by Andrew Solomon; it’s about parenting and the challenges that particular families face, including families with a child with autism. That chapter addresses the fact that parents of these kids often have to love a child who cannot show them love in return. Many kids with autism aren’t able to show affection in traditional ways, or can’t communicate or relate to the demonstrations of love that parents long for.

So, what is it like loving a child with autism, and how do you know whether she loves you back?

How do I know Georgia loves me?

The little voice in the back of my head asks, “How does any parent know that any of their kids loves them – I mean, really loves them?”

There is no standardized test for this. When I ask myself this question, I somehow just know that Georgia loves me. It’s a strange, wonderful, not-what-I-expected kind of love that is at once all-encompassing and challenging. It is bittersweet. It takes serious work to be loved by Georgia: she’s a tough customer who is simultaneously incredibly easy to please. The trick is to interpret her often-convoluted demands to find easy solutions — and then do it again, and again, and again. It’s taken me 14 years but I’ve figured out most of her working parts, and I think she loves me for doing so.

Some of the ways I know Georgia loves me.

1. Almost one hundred per cent of the time Georgia will ask me to go away, unless she needs to be fed, needs help finding her sunglasses or buffalo hat, or wants to watch Jeopardy with me. She’ll pull me off the couch in the basement and tell me to go upstairs, and I won’t see her again until she needs cookies, salami or small electronic devices. But while I’m gone, whether it’s for the day or much longer than that, whoever she’s with has the distinct pleasure of a constant stream of questions about when Mommy might be coming home.

2. When she’s cranky about having to go to bed and is complaining all the way up the stairs, I can get her to instantly smile, sing, dance and hug me by breaking into the “Mahna Mahna” song from the Muppets.


3. She’ll give me a high five on demand almost anytime (even through tears) and she doesn’t mind if I randomly take her hand once in a while when we’re sitting together, just to intertwine her little fingers in mine.

4. On lazy Saturday afternoons, I can still get her to stretch out diagonally across her bed with me while we lie there and talk about knocked-over chairs and the Jays. She nestles into my side and throws a long lanky Georgia leg over me. Heaven.

5. She asks me every day whether I am meeting her bus. I am able to do this far less often than I’d like to, and she never fails to be just a bit disappointed if I’m not there.

6. She asks me to wash her back in the bath. She asks me for a sandwich. She asks me to take her places and to make things happen. She doesn’t always get all of the things she wants, but she hasn’t stopped asking me to be the one to help her get them.

7. When I get angry and impatient and Georgia gets belligerent, we have bad days. Sometimes we have mutual meltdowns. There are tears and frustration — it’s not fun at all. And yet, even after these terrible moments, we find a space to reconnect, tentatively and with a familiar fatigue that comes out of old love, a love that gets in your bones and rests there. Even at her worst moments she is lovable, and I have to imagine that the fact she comes to me demonstrates that, on some level, she feels the same about her rotten old mother.

8. She takes my arm like a little old lady when we go out anywhere. For her it’s about balance: keeping up with the walking pace and being directed forward. For me, it’s about that little hand in the crook of my arm that suggests implicit trust and familiarity, that seeking of connection.

Georgia says her mom looks like Katy Perry; as you can see from this composite, it's true

KATY/NANCY PERRY

9. I look like Katy Perry. And Madonna. And Gwen Stefani. Wait — actually the truth is Katy Perry looks like me. As do Madonna and Gwen. This is Georgia’s unscripted, unsolicited claim when any of those three Georgia-favourite female artists is played: “Katy Perry looks like Mommy, right?! Yep, Katy Perry looks just like Mommy.”

I mean, who doesn’t see that?

10. When I put Georgia to bed, every night, she tells me she loves me. This has taken coaching, and explaining to her more times than she can process that I love her, that she’s my favourite person in the world and that I would do anything for her. Over time she has, I think, learned more about the emotion and the sentiment that I attach to these words. She says them back with her face upturned for a kiss and a smile. Occasionally, we do encounter pronoun confusion and she tells me that she loves herself, but I know what she means.

My child with autism has been taught to do and say and express things most children don’t require coaching for. Teaching her how to say, “I love you too, Mommy” at bedtime is no different than teaching her how to make a sandwich, to wash her face or to wait in a line at the grocery store.

The thing I cannot teach – the thing she does her own little self – is to take a concept that is taught to her and apply it somewhere else, without prompting and with recognized relevance. It’s the moment in the morning when she’s on her way out the door to the bus, all polka-dot sunglasses and aimless chatter. As she heads through the door and I grab a quick kiss good-bye, she looks at me with absolute clarity through grubby fingerprint-covered lenses, and says with her million dollar smile, “Bye, Mom! Have a good day at school, Mom — I love you!”

wiggles

That’s how I know Georgia loves me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those special mothers of all those special kids out there.

Nancy Walton is a professor and the mother of a fabulous 14-year-old. Get all caught up on her column here.

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