But you know what?
Not hearing 'I love you' is not a tragedy.
Some autistic kids find saying 'I love you' difficult, and this often causes a lot consternation amongst their parents. Why won’t they say it? When will they say it? WHAT IF THEY NEVER SAY IT?
Well, let’s take a look at why and maybe the rest will work itself out.
How do you feel?
We don’t come pre-packaged with labels for our emotions. As a kid all you know is that you get a hot noisy feeling when something pisses you off, for example. It’s only when someone says ‘you look angry’ or ‘don’t get mad at me’ that you start to understand what that feeling is, to give it a name so you can recognize it when you feel it or notice it in other people.
But what about those feelings that aren’t noticeable on the outside? What if you take a cookie while nobody is looking - not just any cookie, a special cookie, one your brother was saving for later. After you gobble up every last crumb as quickly as you can you start to feel weird... your heart races, your tummy rolls around and more than anything you wish you could put the cookie back. But on the outside, to everyone else, you look the same. Nobody would say anything to you or give you a label to describe how you’re feeling, in fact it might be a long time before you come to identify that feeling as guilt.
So if you’re the kind of kid who isn’t paying much attention to what other people are doing, isn’t keen on showing them what you’re doing and gets overwhelmed by what your body is feeling, then it might take a bit longer to recognize what those feelings are and put a name to them.
What is love, anyway?
Ask twenty people to describe what love feels like to them and you’ll get twenty different answers with one thing in common - they’ll be vague.
- It makes me feel warm (well anger feels like that too)
- My heart races (just like when you’re scared)
- I’d do anything to have it (hmm, sounds like an obsession to me)
How do we learn to identify what this word love means in the first place? Is it when someone says ‘I love you’, smiles and gives you a big hug? What if you’re a kid who doesn’t notice the smile and the hug sends you into sensory overload? What if ‘I love you’ didn’t make you feel good? In that case it’d be unlikely that you’d associate the word ‘love’ with that feeling you got when you held your favourite train, or when your mum is waiting for you after school. Nope, you might have an entirely different word for that feeling.
Or maybe you’d have no word at all. After all, the really strong feelings are the hardest to describe. They make it hard for you to talk at all, actually. And yet people do talk about love, all the time. You love your friend’s haircut, you love that new TV show, and pizza and taking walks on the beach. How your kids feel about you doesn’t feel at all like how they feel about those things. So maybe to them that feeling isn’t called love at all.
Why do we say I love you?
In its most literal sense, 'I love you' is a statement of fact - one that you almost always say to someone who’s already aware of it. And since we don’t tend to walk around randomly blurting out things that people already know, like 'I have ten toes' or 'the sky is blue', it’s understandable that someone who finds figurative meanings challenging might just not see the point in saying it (or in responding to it, since it’s also clearly not a question).
But saying 'I love you' is so much more than a statement of fact. There are layers and layers of implied meaning and purpose - renewing a connection, making someone feel good, confirming their feelings for you... layers which are not only subtle and complex, but unique to every person and relationship. It’s a phrase that’s loaded with nuance and expectation, hidden rules and social contracts. So if you’re someone who struggles with communication and social understanding, those three little words become incredibly difficult to navigate successfully.
So how do you get okay with not hearing it?
It’s not about the words
Change your expectations
Work through your own issues
Be a love detective
Accept the love that is given
Images courtesy Flickr users linda yvonne and pattista
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