For the past three years, I have been trying to coax three little words out of my 5-year-old son's mouth. I haven't heard them since he was 2, when he'd hug me and say "I love you" over and over with the same intonation he'd heard on his Barney videos. But like many of the phrases Lucas used back then, those words disappeared from his vocabulary.
We learned that Lucas had autism when he was 3. Oddly enough, the diagnosis came as a relief to me and my husband, Dan. Deep down, we'd always known there was something different about him, and when we heard the "A" word, it all made sense. Finally, we understood why Lucas could recite every line of Dr. Seuss's Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? but could barely put more than two words together on his own. And why he'd learned all of his letters, numbers, and shapes by age 2 but still couldn't answer a simple yes-or-no question like "Would you like some milk?"
The diagnosis helped explain all Lucas's little oddities, like his insistence on watching the microwave clock count down or his refusal to wear a coat, even on the coldest days. And it gave us permission to stop blaming ourselves for his strange outbursts and major tantrums. In the past two years, we've come to understand who our son is and how he operates -- and we've been able to get him the services he needs.
Among the many challenges we face, one of the most difficult is helping Lucas express himself. It's hard enough to encourage him to tell us what he wants, but it's even tougher to get him to tell us how he feels. Last year, at his special preschool, he began learning about feelings and emotions. For a while, he fixated on the lessons. When we were looking at characters in a book, he'd ask me how the person was feeling. And if he noticed a change in my voice when I was frustrated or impatient, he'd ask, "Mommy, how are you feeling? Are you happy?"
I was thrilled that he was interested, so I tried to teach him about love and encouraged him to tell me he loved me. "Lucas, can you say 'I love you' to Mommy?" I asked desperately, again and again. No dice.
Fast-forward to a few months later -- Mother's Day. The morning got off to a horrible start. I was secretly hoping for breakfast in bed, but when I realized it wasn't going to happen, I came downstairs. Dan, Lucas, and Natalie, my 2-year-old, were making cards, but they stopped just long enough to give me my gifts: a box of cheap chocolates and a scented candle that Dan had picked up on his grocery run the night before. I tried to hide my disappointment.
By 9:30, no one had eaten breakfast, so I decided to make pancakes myself. Lucas, caught up in his project, didn't notice until the batter was finished, and then he began screaming and crying because he hadn't gotten to measure the flour. He had another huge fit when he counted only eight pancakes on the griddle instead of ten. Natalie, normally a mellow child, got caught up in the chaos and had a meltdown too. This was not the Mother's Day I had hoped for at all.
Eventually, with everyone calmed down, we started to eat. A few minutes later, Lucas got up from the table, walked around to my seat, and handed me a pink paper heart, inscribed with the word love.
"It has a cursive e," he said proudly.
"Look at that!" I gushed. "Nice job."
Then, in his sweet little-boy voice, he said, "I love you."
Finally. Just like that. All on his own. The words I'd been waiting to hear.
My eyes welled up. "Mommy loves you too," I whispered, as I hugged my precious, perfect son and silently thanked him for the best Mother's Day gift he could ever give me.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Parents magazine.