How to reconnect after a difficult period

Strengthening the bond ... rebuilding a relationship with my autistic son.
Strengthening the bond ... rebuilding a relationship with my autistic son. Photo: Getty

Q: How does a busy working mum rebuild a fun and loving relationship with her very bright, sensitive, high-functioning autistic five-year-old son? He has felt to her more like a "project" than a child the past few years with all the therapies, appointments, challenges and tantrums, and now he's becoming much more "likable" and a lot less challenging.

A: First of all, I love this question with all of my heart. I love it because while I don't know the specific details of the last five years, I can feel that you have been through it. You have been working your tuchis off to support and understand your son and help him thrive, and look at this: He is emerging! He is growing. He is maturing. It's working. Congratulations.

I also love this letter because I feel your yearning in it.

One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is the importance of yearning in parenthood. All change in our families begins with that feeling. Imagine that yearning is an arrow, shooting out from your heart, and you follow the trajectory. The brain picks up the path and makes the plan, sure, but it must follow the desire for change first.

You are now yearning to connect with your son.

Above all things, despite all obstacles, hold on to that feeling.

Now, what can we do? What does this connection look like?

What we want to do is find the intersection of where the two of you can meet. For instance, I would love to take my eight-year-old shoe shopping (because I love shoes), but the reality is that she wants to kick a soccer ball. So I need to connect with that kind of activity. I get bored with kicking a ball, so I need to figure out what else we can do that is physical and fun. I want to be as joyful as I can in the activity, because joy shines out of our parental faces and eyes. Our children know when we are having fun and when we are phoning it in.

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So get a pen and a piece of paper, set the timer for five minutes, and write down everything your son loves to do. Even if you don't love it, even if it seems expensive or improbable, write it down. It doesn't need to be a perfect list. Scribble, write all over the page, just do it.

Also, write down anything that your son loves. Food. Animals. Trucks. Dance. Art. Football. Card games. Video games.

Now, step back, stretch a little, wash a dish, pet the dog, get a glass of water, and then return to the list.

Circle every word or phrase that makes you smile. If you smile at a lot of the words, circle away. If you smile at some of the words or phrases even a tiny bit, circle them.

Now, get a highlighter and circle what your son really loves the most on the list. And yes, it may be the video games, but just circle what he loves best.

Step back. Which words are circled twice? This is where you are going to begin. For instance, you both love food, so you are going to take a Saturday morning and bake something together and eat it. Or you both love animals, so you call a shelter and volunteer to clean and pet the animals. Or you both love bike riding, so you find a safe path where you can practice.

If few of the activities match up, this is where you do your best to meet him in the middle. After all, he is the child. We are filling his cup, not necessarily the other way around. And yes, you may sigh deeply when you realise you will be playing some Wii with him, but I can promise you that the look in his eyes will make up for any annoyance you feel right now.

Now, here is the catch, and it's a big one: Don't be upset if he doesn't respond with joy and appreciation during these moments of connection.

Just go ahead and plan the activity. Don't wait for him to okay it. Don't wait for input and don't negotiate it. Just plan it and make it happen.

If your outing or activity goes awry, then smile and learn from it. Was it too busy? Was it too early? Was it too much? Was it too boring? Was it not what you both thought it would be? Take the information, learn, and move forward.

Just don't give up.

If your son is accustomed to connecting with you through struggle and therapy and tantrums, you are introducing a very new dynamic here. So be gentle, go slow, stay positive, stay open, and remember the initial yearning: I want to rebuild a fun and loving relationship with my son.

Above all, keep that yearning in front of you. Keep it clear. Follow it, always. You will find your way.

Washington Post