I Love You 2001

One of the first signs of autism I noticed in Harry was at the end of Kindergarten. Almost overnight, he began having difficulty making eye contact with me. As we went through the diagnosis process and I learned more about autism and aspergers (the spot on the spectrum that Harry seems to be orbiting) I noticed that Harry only showed his mom and I affection while being a ”cuddly hamster”.

What’s a cuddly hamster? I’m so glad you asked. Cuddly Hamster is when Harry talks in a very high nasal voice using squeaks and baby talk (wuv instead of love, da-da instead of dad, etc).

Enter “Avengers: Endgame”. Like so many others, I had a ticket for the first showing on opening day and loved EVERY moment, until Tony Starks daughter said “I Love You 3000”. Yes, I know it’s fictional characters portrayed by actors meant to have an emotional impact and boy did it ever.

As I sat there, seeing a movie I had been excited to see for a LONG time, I was instead thinking about how, at that time, my 7 ½ year old son could not share a similar sentiment with me and it shredded my heart. After that realization it was like a scab that kept getting ripped off every time I saw a post on Mom and Dad Facebook pages about how their hearts melt when their kids tell them they love them. I was not in a great place…

Then I had an idea. I was going to teach my son how to tell me he loved me, I just had to figure out how.

Let me take a minute here to say: I know my son loves me. I see it every day in a million different ways. My goal was to help him learn how to express his feelings in a way that is easily recognized.

Routine and repetition are big deals in Harry’s world and have been since he was born. One more than most: Bedtime.

Bedtime in our house has been a whole family affair since before Harry was in a big boy bed and, while I don’t do a dramatic retelling of “The Kiss That Missed” or sing “You Are My Sunshine” anymore, attendance at tuck-in time is still mandatory.

A few weeks after the whole “I Love You 3000” thing, I decided to try to use the structure of bedtime to teach Harry to say I Love You and you know what? IT FREAKING WORKED!

Here’s what we do: Harry climbs the ladder of his loft bed so that he is at eye level with his mom and I, and we say “I love you Harry”. He then replies, “I love you, Mama” and I love you, Dada” still in a slightly “Hamster” voice but its done with direct eye contact, followed by a darn good hug that is the best part of my day. Did it happen this way the first time? No. The 10th time? No way. The important thing though is that we kept trying every night (and continue to). See every week him being more authentic in his words and gestures, and they eye contact seems less of a struggle as well.

You have to say “I love you Harry” you can’t say I love you, I love you buddy, pal, or turkey butt and expect a reply. The best part? Telling Harry’s grandma (aka Nan or Nana) and seeing her light up the first time (ever) that he said “I love you Nana”. We still only get I love’s the rest of the time in hamster form but Harry announced that the hamster is “retiring” on his 8th birthday and I do not doubt for a second that he really means it.

Any other parents have kids that use personas or characters to communicate their emotions? If you have any tips or tricks please let me know in the comments or send me an email!

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