“Mommy, I don’t know what love is.” Many parents who have children with Asperger’s Syndrome experience devastating moments like this and are uncertain as to how to reply. Love seems such a natural part of our lives. Explaining what love is becomes difficult, because love is so many things. Yet teaching love to your child is the most profound work a parent can do.
Love is more than feeling it (emotional empathy). Love is more than talking about it (cognitive empathy). Love is more than systematizing a moral code to live by (as many with Aspergers do to compensate for their empathy disorder). Love is more than practicing the rules of engagement (although politeness helps).
Over the years children learn about all kinds of love, not just familial love. They love their friends because they are fun to be with, and they share the excitement of childhood. They love their teachers and coaches because they are kind and encouraging. As children develop, they learn to give back more and more to the special people they love and who love them. At a certain age they begin to plumb the depths of romantic love. Of course the hormones are raging in those middle school and high school years, but it’s not only about sexual desire. Learning how to give and receive love is a huge part of growing up through adolescence.
We are wired chemically and genetically for affiliation, which is one step in the loving process. The modeling of loving parents and extended kin and friendship networks expands that innate ability by teaching the child how to express the many varieties of love that are possible.
However, when a person is a non-empathetic, black-and-white thinker, as many with Asperger’s are, they try to categorize love as if it were an object; something to be acquired. Yet love is a process that changes with each person you love and alters throughout the course of each relationship like the flow of a mountain stream. It’s hard for them to comprehend that we are each a changing individual in a changing world and our love is a dynamic dialogue with those we love.
In my practice, I’ve found one effective way to assist children with Asperger Syndrome is to define the many different types of love for them. The ancient Greeks help us to do this. While there are many more nuances in meaning than have been listed, this is enough to get you started guiding your AS child in the art of love. And let them know it is possible to have more than one type of love for a person.
Agápe refers to true love. This is the deep and abiding affection one has for one’s spouse, partner, parents or children. It’s caring about them and doing nice things because you want them to be happy.
How can you, as a parent, explain this to your child? You might say, “When we feel Agápe we look at them and tell them, ‘I love you deeply.’”
Éros is passionate and romantic love. It includes sensuality and longing. Sexual feelings are usually considered a part of Éros.
How can you, as a parent explain this to your child? You might say, “When you get older and feel Éros, you’ll say with much gusto, ‘I’m crazy about you!’”
Philia means friendship. This is the kind of love one has for friends. It is not as passionate as Éros. Philia is displayed with our friends through respect and loyalty and enjoying our time together. Philia is also the type of love we experience when we enjoy an activity.
How might you explain this to your child? With your friends you might say, “It was great seeing you.” Or when you enjoy an activity, you might say, “I just love soccer.” We don’t love soccer or our friends the way we love our dear ones or our heartthrob.
Storge means affection. It is love, but just of the moment. Within the family where Agápe is strong, a parent will have affection or Storge for their child at a moment the child does something adorable. You can have Storge for your pet, but it is probably not on the level of the Agápe you feel for your child.
You might explain it this way: When you see your kitten playing with its toy, you feel pleased and say, “Oh he’s being so cute! I just love my kitty.”
Don’t let yourself believe that those with Asperger Syndrome can’t love. However, because they are context-blind, their ability to demonstrate love is limited. Essentially context blindness is the inability of those with Asperger’s to distinguish the forest for the trees. Peter Vermeulen defines the opposite of context blindness as context sensitivity:
Context is what is going on in the environment, outside and inside our brain that influences our way of giving meaning to things. The ability to select elements in the context that are useful and meaningful and to use them is context sensitivity. The neurotypical human brain is, inherently, context sensitive.
Parents can feel a great deal of grief, disconnect and loneliness when teaching a child with Asperger Syndrome to show love. It means being an unconditionally loving caregiver. When your child is not wired for empathy, the love that may be in his or her heart is seldom given back in ways that make a neurotypical person feel loved. Once you understand better how Asperger’s works, you realize that your child’s empathy disorder and context blindness get in the way of sharing her love with you, and even letting you love her back. But in their own way they do love you.
Can you teach love? I am sure you can, but your child will need to be instructed step by step on the art of loving. By establishing rules of engagement, you can approximate the skills of loving.
Love is a mystery for all of us, but for the AS child the mystery is unsolvable without guidance. Helping your child understand love might be as simple as telling her that there are many different types of love as stated above. Know that you are loved, even without verbal and physical demonstrations of affection. When you come from a place of love, you encourage the love to flow.