When a high-functioning autistic child smiles at you while maintaining eye contact, it feels as though you are basking in the warmest rays of the sun.
It’s that special.
Just as thrilling, when my son’s autistic bestie seeks me out just so he can tell me something special that happened to him that day. It’s like being one of the chosen ones. It’s when I know I’ve made contact, a real connection.
I have met so many precious autistic kids since my son Giovanni, 8, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) almost a year ago and I just can’t get enough of them.
There’s Evan who lives down the road, who is so comfortable visiting us now that I hope he considers our home his second home. He puts so much thought and effort into the gifts he buys for us and they are always perfect.
He loves nothing more than to make us laugh at the dinner table. It makes it very hard to eat.
There’s the quiet little boy at Occupational Therapy (OT) on Wednesdays who sits patiently waiting for his turn while my daughter talks his ear off, much to his amusement. He sometimes catches my eye and mimics talking with his hand, as if to say, “Does she ever shut up?” causing my daughter and I to burst out laughing.
And there are the many children who belong to family and friends who I see pop up on social media, displaying their latest milestones and achievements. I love to see them all. They are a constant reminder that we – the parents – are all in this together.
In each and every one of them I see my son. I see his struggles and I see his potential.
Giovanni is like no child I have ever known.
He doesn’t crave or demand my attention, like other kids. He can go for hours without any contact with another human, happy to be ignored. I have to seek him out and when I do he always pauses his game or video so he can give me one of his incredible hugs.
He’s so affectionate.
“I love you Mum and you love me so much,” he says, several times a day. Nobody told me autistic kids could be so loving.
It’s taken some time to figure out what he needs to thrive:
Lots of encouragement and lots of praise;
Calm, gentle suggestion;
Familiarity and routine;
Love and understanding;
Plenty of alone time;
A constant supply of toasted cheese sandwiches cut into small triangles, made with the same type of cheese and the same type of bread, toasted just so.
Giovanni is full of fun facts so this school assignment was easy for him, as long as he didn’t have to do it in front of the entire class. Article continues after this video.
He doesn’t know how to lie.
Telling an untruth never even occurs to him. I don’t know if this is true of all autistic kids but my son and his best friend have no ability to lie whatsover, which makes it really hard not to laugh when I am meant to be reprimanding them.
They know when they’ve upset each other. There’s no dobbing on each other or passive aggressive behaviour. It’s just raised voices and then quickly moving on.
I know what it takes for Giovanni to exist in the world. I also know how to bring him back when he shuts down.
He doesn’t like to be tickled. It distresses him so much that he will completely shut down if he’s subjected to it.
When a family member recently decided to take multiple photos of him with his cousins, ignoring the fact he hates having his photo taken, she told the kids to tickle him in an effort to get him to smile.
Giovanni was almost hysterical and then was left sitting alone in the grass, distraught. I found him much later, pulling at the grass, a repetitive action that serves to calm him. We talked and we hugged. We walked back inside.
I have to earn his smile, my own son, but I know how to get it to happen easily now. I know what delights him and I love nothing more than to see him delighted.
He has an incredible sense of humour.
Giovanni loves to repeat jokes he has heard and does so repeatedly until they are replaced with something else. Even a line from a movie he found funny will be repeated randomly for months. Each time he is completely caught up in it, totally amused and incredibly sincere in his delivery of it.
But don’t laugh at him.
This week we had to write a speech about water and Giovanni suggested a couple of funny suggestions which he then refused to read out because everyone would laugh. Even though they wouldn’t be laughing at him he just can’t cope with it. It’s too loud, too much attention, just to much.
Eye-contact is always fleeting.
It doesn’t matter. I want him to do what he needs. I never break eye-contact with him, even as his eyes dart away for comfort, to lessen anxiety, to momentarily disconnect. I want him to know that I am still there, waiting for him to come back to me.
Animals always calm him down.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day. Iconic buildings across Australia will light up blue to promote autism awareness, along with additional locations around the world.
I am so grateful that an autistic child has been gifted to me. I thank my lucky stars each and every day.
If you or someone you know needs autism support please contact autismawareness.com.au or consult your local GP.