Loving a child with special needs who rejects affection can break a mother's heart. This mom kisses her son anyway, despite his disdain.
Health Life Parenting Special Needs

Tough Love: Parenting a Non-Affectionate Child with Special Needs

Loving a child with special needs who rejects affection can break a mother's heart. This mom kisses her son anyway, despite his disdain.

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By Robin LaVoie of Stay Quirky My Friends

I torture my child on a fairly regular basis. Every time I indulge in this behavior, my son’s screams of aggravation and my husband’s entreaties to “stop being so mean” convince me to back off, and I am able to refrain for a few days. But soon enough I am at it again. I can’t help it.

I tell him: “I am a mom, this is what we do.” And, “You are my son and I will kiss you if I want to.”

Oh, he hates that.

Most days, I am very sensitive to the fact that my child is, well, sensitive. His allergy to affection is not just a new teenager-embarrassment thing. Like many people with autism, my kid’s sensory system is on high alert, and there is something about a kiss that really rubs him the wrong way. Perhaps my lips feel like sandpaper to him. Or maybe it is the sound of the smack that makes his skin crawl. Whatever the true cause, I am a mother to a non-affectionate child with special needs.

My son is so repulsed by the idea that he responds with a frustrated “Ouch!” when I simply blow him a kiss, not to mention when I actually touch my lips to his skin. When I do sneak in a quick peck, he grunts, “No!” and often hits himself or vigorously rubs the spot where the kiss was planted.

If I really feel like sharing the love, I will give my husband a kiss when my son is in the room. My kid will drop whatever he is doing to run over and give his dad a tap on the head, just to set things right, while giving my husband a very clear look of “You’re welcome.”

So, with due respect to my child’s aversion, I usually offer appropriate accommodations. I make do with a ruffle of his hair or a squeeze of his hand. I substitute crazy tickle fights for quiet cuddling on the couch. I give my boy “deep pressure” squishes instead of gentle hugs. If my kid is in a good mood, I can attack him in a game of “Mommy kisses!” and we laugh as he fights off my maternal advances.

I know that I am lucky to have these interactions with him—some people on the spectrum avoid any kind of physical contact—so I try to keep my kisses to a minimum, no matter how much I crave a tender moment with my child. But sometimes I just forget. His infectious laugh and beautiful grin bring out the worst in me. When he is upset, I really screw it up. Even after sixteen years of parenting this kid, I still try to offer a shoulder rub or soft hug when he is crying. To him, my actions provide the exact opposite of comfort, but that maternal instinct to reach out and physically embrace a despondent child is strong. I am still learning that my needs and his don’t always match up.

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My unrelenting displays of affection are not just about what I need as a mother, though. I torture him for his own good. Just like crowded grocery stores, dental exams and public bathrooms, there are things in life that you just have to do—no matter how disgusting and uncomfortable. My rigorous campaign to expose him to these awful and painful obligations in life—including receiving a kiss from someone you love—will ultimately pay off. After years of practice, my son loves the grocery store, successfully endures the dentist, and stresses about the public john a lot less than I do myself. Someday, his wife will thank me.

But on those days when it is clear he cannot tolerate any violations of his personal space, I oblige him. I adjust and adapt. I bide my time. I enter his room, ninja-like, after he has fallen asleep. I fix his blanket so his feet don’t stick out. I touch his arm, push his hair away from his forehead, and take in his calm, unworried face. He would probably be horrified to know that I am here, every night, ever so gently stealing the kiss that I cannot give him while he is awake.

I know. I’m so mean.

“Now I’ve been hangin’ around you for days
But when I lean in, you just turn your head away…
…I always have to steal my kisses from you
Always have to steal my kisses from you.”

—Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

This post was originally published on Stay Quirky My Friends and appears in the anthology Monday Coffee & Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs, edited by Darolyn “Lyn” Jones and Liz Whiteacre.



About Robin LaVoie

Robin LaVoie hoards spare moments between her real employment as a historical researcher and her parent-wife duties to document her life as the mother of a lovable and quirky teenaged boy. She writes to diffuse the pressure of special needs parenting, advocate for a more inclusive world, and share the “eureka” moments that her son wishes wouldn’t have taken her so long to figure out at Stay Quirky My Friends.