‘She may never pen a love letter. She may never gush in appreciation for her momma. But when I cry, she cries.’: Mom to daughter with autism says ‘the ability to recognize love without words is a gift’

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“It’s so painful to love someone with your whole heart, like the all-the-way, risk-it-all kind of love. The love that physically hurts you but at the same time makes you feel like anything is possible. That kind of love is painful when it’s not reciprocated.

But I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m not talking about the boo hoo’s of a bad break-up. What if that love you question, you desire, you long for, is the love of your own child? For some of us, autism is staring in the blank eyes of a child who you would die for, literally die, and not know if or what they feel in return.

Does she know? Sometimes, Isla’s eyes are so blank, her brain so overwhelmed, her day so hard, her meltdown so severe, so long…I will stare at her face and wonder if she knows. Does she know how fiercely she is loved?

I do. My parents, my husband, my family, my friends…over the course of my life I have experienced and shown and been shown real true love through words, actions, thoughtful gestures, familiar smells, unreplaceable experiences, all of it. Does Isla know love? Does she love?

Courtesy of Lisa Pena

It took many years for Isla to tell me ‘I love you,’ but she used to say that to the bagger at HEB when they would give her a sticker so, there’s that. How do I know if her words are empty? As a writer, word choice is everything. The meanings of words matter to me. So, follow me for a minute…

The definition of Love: an intense feeling of deep affection; strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties. Hmm. Affection was used quite a bit. Keep following…

The definition of Affection: a feeling of liking and caring for someone or something; an intense feeling of tender attachment. Man, that’s good.

OK so for about 2 weeks I did a little experiment of my own. Every time I felt like Isla was showing a ‘liking,’ ‘caring,’ or ‘tender attachment’ for someone, I wrote down what I noticed, what I saw, what she did or how her demeanor changed.

The very first time I went back to this list when the 2 weeks were over, I wept as I read it back to myself. At the time, I wasn’t sure why I became so emotional because as I wrote these entries, I was not emotional at all. But all of them together, the entirety of it, well, here are my notes…

The way her breathing slows when I hug her.

The way she laughs with her head back and mouth wide open when we crazy dance to Cardi B (Kidz Bop version guys…come on now).

The way her brow scowls when I’m hurt, bandaged, and walking slowly after surgery.

The way her eyes search my face for how I feel when her teacher says she had a hard day.

The way her eyes search my face for how I feel when her teacher says she had a great day.

The way she says ‘my dada’ even though she can say daddy and dad.

The way she remembers what I say and tries to repeat it weeks later.

The way she watches over her little brother but also allows him to help wipe her chin when she is drooling.

The way she pushes her great grandpa’s wheelchair in his last days and cheers him on as he eats the tiniest spoonful’s one at a time.

The way she softens her voice when talking to a baby or a puppy.

The way her eyes widen, and she immediately starts biting her nails when she hears the siren of an ambulance.

The way she placed her hand over her mouth while watching her daddy’s football team sing her happy birthday.

The way she is drawn to serve others, especially those obviously in need of help like the elderly and those with disabilities.

The way she smiles that very specific shy smile and tilts her head when her daddy praises her.

The way she brings artwork home for birthdays and special occasions knowing full well who she made that artwork for, even if she had a ton of help.

The way she trusts me completely with her body as I bathe her and care for her.

The way she lets her body sink into mine when she is crying and overwhelmed.

The way she places her hand over her heart when she sees the book I wrote about her life in other people’s homes.

The way she feeds off every emotion I have.

The way she cries when I cry.

The way she rejoices when I rejoice.

The way she now says, ‘I love you.’ Not in repetition, but spontaneously.

Courtesy of Lisa Pena

Tender attachment.

She may never pen a letter professing her love for me. She may never write a card gushing in appreciation for her momma. She may never have a baby of her own and realize the insane love a parent has for a child but…

Because she trusts, I know she loves and feels loved. Because she cares, I know she loves and feels loved. Because she is comforted, I know she loves and feels loved. Because she is thriving, I know she loves and feels loved.

Is that enough? It has to be enough.

With a little more time to process my feelings, I realized why reading this list made me cry the way it did. Because the ability to recognize love without words is a gift. It’s my gift. It’s Isla’s gift to me. It’s an ability I would not have without her.

And…Isla’s middle name is LOVE…a gift intended for me many years before Isla was Isla. I’m sure of it. So today, know that…your son loves you. Your daughter loves you. She knows she is loved. He knows he is loved. You are enough.”

Courtesy of Lisa Pena

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dr. Lisa Peña of South Padre Island, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more from Lisa here:

‘What happens to my girl when society realizes it’s not ‘cute’ anymore? How do I make people see the beauty I see?’: Mom to daughter with autism urges us to challenge our idea of beauty

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