The little boy had a difficult beginning. Born unwelcome, left at an orphanage in a rural area overseas, raised in a crib in a room full of other babies in cribs–bereft of stimulation or affection or even much in the way of nourishment, when funds at the orphanage were low.
He was among the fortunate ones who survived infancy, and was adopted at age two, to parents who showered all the love they had on him and then found that they had even more to give when that threatened to run out. He was not easy to care for, you see. Unresponsive, non-communicative, alternately rubbing himself against their legs like a kitten, squirming to get off, or slumping like a lump of potatoes in their arms. He either cried inconsolably or stared stoically. He would eat things that should not be eaten and hide foods that should. He could not fall asleep unless he was in an empty bed, never a quiet room, and only after a long while of rhythmic head banging. He barely spoke. Only sometimes responded to his name. It was not looking good.
Fortunately, these parents had excellent instincts, stout souls, and good guidance. They sought help to know how to best assist a child so traumatized that he had learned to take himself away to cope. How to support a child who did not know others could be relied on. How to guide into love a child who did not recognize affection as markers for attachment or caring. They did not believe those who said that their son was autistic. “Maybe he is,” they argued, “but how could we know if he’s autistic, if he never had a chance to truly communicate?”
They sought other opinions and took him to speech language therapy and sensory therapy. They went to counseling themselves–there was much heartbreak to deal with in finally having a child and finding him unwelcoming of love. They looked for help with someone who understood developmental trauma and the adjoining dissociation that often follows–they wanted to know more how to best support him. They knew just loving him more was not enough: they had to find a way to help him process what he’d lived before he could find hope to live differently. Together with professionals, they worked to help give voice to what had none, they walked with him along the story of his lost beginning and his suffering and his strength and masterful coping and his current safety. He needed to know it in all of his being before he could trust it. Gently, they helped him heal.
Persistent gentle kindness integrated with knowledgeable attention and direction helped. The child bloomed. He is no longer checked out from his world, or words, or feelings. He’s in first grade now. Still closing gaps in language and communication, and he may always carry scars from his early years and a plausible exposure to substances before birth that make it difficult for him to regulate his body’s reactions and excitement. However, a more affectionate little boy you would be pressed hard to find. He’s happy. He knows he’s loved.
Not too long ago we were busy with a task where we listed things one does in the morning, or after school, or on weekends, or in a mall, or a park, or before going to sleep at night. To the last he said: “take a bath, brush my teeth, read a book, put my head on mama or papa’s chest.”
I smiled at that–the mom told me that they had a nightly routine where they’d cuddle, making up for the many lonely nights of empty cribs and no arms to rock him. They would snuggle together for a while, let him use them as a pillow, then kiss him goodnight. The parents had held him most the night when he was younger, once he let them.
The boy nodded at me, maybe taking my quiet smile as a sign that he needed to convince me of the veracity of what he was saying, or its importance. “Mama is softer, …” he continued, “and papa’s chest boo-booms louder. I like it. It makes me feel nice inside and it helps me not feel like I have to bang my head.”
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