The Proper Care and Feeding of Angels

Susan and Justin Delaine

Susan and Justin Delaine

Throughout each day, I give my sons smothering hugs, holding on until they manage to break away.  Rarely, no, “never” do they reciprocate and over the years, I’ve become okay with that.  As moms, reciprocity doesn’t always matter.  Most of us either can’t resist the little angels or we just want them to learn acts of kindness and affection through example.

But I had this notion challenged one day when my son, Justin was four years old.  Recently diagnosed with autism, he couldn’t stand to be held or restrained for long, much less kissed or hugged.  He refused to breastfeed.  He pulled away when picked up and, in the likeness of one who is stopping traffic on a major freeway, he thrust his tubby arms straight out in front of him when approached too fast.  But since we had been dealing with these characteristics since his birth, I had built up an indifference to his lack of affection.  “So what,” I said.  “He’s a perfectly cute, chubby, cute baby.  We’re thankful so long as he’s healthy and cute…” until one day.

The year is 2005.  By now, Justin is four years old and attending the wonderful Special Needs Preschool program in Fayette County.  I am standing at a distance on the driveway eagerly awaiting his arrival home.  For each day, Justin is showing marked improvements as a result of the program and mastering new tasks.  I am so looking forward to checking out his backpack to read the teacher’s note and to see what he’s done for the day.  And oh yes, I can’t wait to (attempt) to hug my son upon his arrival.

Children with autism innately present with lessons in unconditional love.  Because of the change from what we had planned for them and because of their difference from typical peers, they present with an extra opportunity for us to learn how to love them, no matter what.  On this day, as with all others, I am prepared to hug and kiss him whether he returns the affection or not.

In the moments between Justin getting off the bus and his arrival to me, I for once, am experiencing the pure rapture of my son’s first willful embrace!  He descends the steps of the bus, raising his hands up high, squealing “maaaaaaa” and sprints off for a 20-meter dash to me.  In this moment, there is no time to wonder why or how this came to be… although the Q&A plays in my mind, I decide to ask questions later and enjoy what feels like the stopping of time.  Other moms I speak with about this compare it to Erik Erikson’s last stage of life development in which one experiences a sense of integrity, accomplishment and completion.  For all the years of rejected cuddles, this moment is my icing on the cake of life.  I am complete.

Whoever said we should live each moment as if it were our last had a compelling point.  My moment of bliss has come to a rather abrupt end as he jolts past me, being chased by a dragon fly near his head.  I am a little bit puzzled but required to beam back to the 21st century and follow the child into the house- on which the door has been shut and dead-bolted.  But as soon as I can break my way back in to the house, I resume doing what moms do – providing the love and care that our children need at their very core  little reciprocity notwithstanding.  Eventually, as in the case of Justin, they will “get it.”

Susan Kelley-Delaine is the mom of Justin, age 8 who has autism and Ryan, age 6.  She is the author of “Balancing the Bowl,” an autism resource guide and cookbook and also the creator of “BalanZen the Bowl” an inspirational blog and workshop for autism parents.  She and her husband, Chris, live in Fayetteville with their two sons. To read more about Susan, her media coverage and event schedule, visit

July 1, 2009