When my son was an infant, before he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I accidentally locked him in my car.
After grocery shopping, I strapped him into his car seat and closed his door. When I went around to the driver’s side, I found it locked. I circled the car in a panic, pulling every handle. All the doors were locked. I could see my keys inside, resting on the console.
I pressed my face against my son’s window. He stared blankly ahead, unalarmed for now. Through the tinted glass, I made out the shape of his arms and legs extending like scarecrow limbs from the car seat. I mouthed through the glass, “It’s okay. I’m here,” but he wasn’t looking at me. Soon he started to whimper, then cry, then wail. I desperately scanned the parking lot for something to smash through the window, but there was nothing. I called 911.
Everyone assured me it was a common mishap, the kind of thing that can happen to anyone, especially a frazzled and sleep-deprived new mom. For me, it seemed to reflect a deeper disconnect between my son and I.
The first time I recall something amiss, I was getting my son dressed. I had laid him out on the bed, my face dangling above his. I smiled and cooed. Instead of smiling back, my son rolled his head away from me.
There were moments when he and I bonded: we exchanged giggles and grins. Then he’d seem to withdraw into himself. His eyes grew glassy and distant, no longer looking at me but through me. It felt like a pane of glass had gone up between us.
He became easily agitated, often for no apparent reason. Once he could walk, he’d run through rooms crashing into furniture and knocking items off shelves. He let out panicked, high-pitched cries. When I tried to pick him up, he’d push me away or pummel me with his tiny fists. I could not soothe him. I felt the same powerlessness as when I had locked him the car, seeing him but unable to reach him.
I worried his behavior was the result of his difficult birth. After an emergency C-section, he was whisked away because he wasn’t breathing. The first time I saw him was through a Plexiglas incubator, his rooster crown of red-hair swirling from on top of his badly dented head.
We were separated for his first week during which time I underwent a second surgery and he recovered in the NICU. I was too sick to visit him, so my husband hopped between hospital floors, bringing me reports on our baby that I couldn’t bear to listen to because I should have been the one delivering them.
From his earliest months, my son favored my husband. When we put him down on the floor, he’d crawl toward his dad. When hurt, he’d run to his dad for comfort. If I tried to hold him instead, he’d recoil and shriek, “Daddy!” When the three of us played, he only spoke to and looked at my husband.
I didn’t have children to feel loved, but I certainly thought that was part of the deal, that along with poopy diapers and sleepless nights, comes a primal and unsurpassable parent-child bond. As the mom – the one who carried, gave birth to and suckled my son – I fully anticipated being his number one.
Instead, he seemed to prefer even strangers over me. We attended Gymboree classes. At circle time, when the other kids sat on their parents’ laps, my son refused to sit on mine. He’d attempt to climb onto some other mom whose lap was already occupied. Embarrassed, I’d pull him off and hug him to my chest. He’d wriggle free and run away, leaving me sitting alone in a circle of singing twosomes.
The less my son wanted to do with me, the harder I worked to get his attention. I struggled to remain animated and upbeat, while inside I desperately wondered what I was doing wrong. Was I not engaged enough? Too engaged? Did it all stem from that first week of separation when I hadn’t been there for him? Or, was it as I’d always feared – that I just wasn’t that lovable?
In my self-absorbed state, it never occurred to me that something else might be going on, that my son’s rejection of me wasn’t so much a rejection but a symptom of an underlying neurological disorder.
Our relationship had triggered a very old and deep wound in me. I’d always struggled to feel loved, or loved enough. I relied heavily on outward affirmation to feel secure and valued.
With a therapist’s guidance, I realized I was burdening my son with my own unmet emotional needs. I’d inadvertently put a vulnerable child in charge of my own sense of self-worth. It wasn’t his job to ensure I felt loved; it was mine.
I began to focus more on myself. I had my own inner child to attend to. In those moments I felt rejected I tuned into my own feelings and ways to self-soothe. When I longed for a look or a hug from my son, I physically wrapped my arms around myself.
At the age of three, my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. By then, he was enrolled in preschool and his challenges had become more apparent. He didn’t just struggle to relate to me but to people in general.
Pieces began to fall into place. I learned about sensory processing disorder, a component of autism, where kids on the spectrum become overwhelmed by sensory input. The pattern of withdrawal and aggression I’d observed in my son was his natural fight or flight response to too much stimulation.
It now made sense while my son would gravitate toward my husband who, by nature, is more reserved, as well as having large, cradle-like arms and a low, even voice. I could see the appeal of that calming presence over my panicked insistence on physical closeness and eye contact.
I look back on Gymboree classes and think what a sensory overload that must have been for my son. I regret I was too wrapped up in my own reactions to realize what he needed.
In some respects, I’m thankful my son has autism. If he were a typical child who reciprocated love in a more typical way, I would not have had to examine myself so carefully. I could have gone on indefinitely projecting my own insecurities onto him.
Now I can see how deeply connected my son and I actually are. We have our inside jokes and our own special ways of relating. He is drawn to my playful and adventurous spirit. Now that he’s more verbal, he tells me he loves me. Sometimes he’ll grab my face and smoosh it against his own so that there’s nothing at all separating us.
It still hurts when my son withdraws, or when he is so worked up, he’s unreachable. I know it’s not about me – he’s struggling to regain his own equilibrium – but it’s hard not to take personally. I feel that same stab or rejection. I’m locked out, standing outside the glass, mouthing words he cannot hear.
I take a breath and tell myself, It’s okay. I’m here.