I Don’t Know How to Love You

The bond between mother and child is said to be unbreakable. But what happens when the child is hard to reach? Alysia Abbott reflects on the challenging journey she has taken with her son—and shares the love lesson she received from a most unexpected source.


Photo by Timothy Archibald

Within the past year, my husband and I stopped showing up in the many drawings and cards our five-year-old daughter, Annabel, brought home from school. Instead nearly every creation was made for him: her “baby”; her “cutie boy”; her brother, Finn. A map to Candy Land for Annabel and Finny. A valentine for Finny. A magnet for Finny. Whenever she drew herself in a picture, he was always there, always small, sometimes crying. And whenever her name appeared, just below she wrote his, connecting the dot in the i of his name to the l in her name so that it resembled a lollipop. When we recently moved to a bigger home, Annabel was nervous about Finn’s having his own room for the first time. “What if he gets scared?” she asked. “Who will sing to him?” After all, she explained, “only I speak his language.”

But what is language to Finn? At age 3½, he should be speaking in sentences, enjoying silly Dr. Seuss books, and saying, “Mama!” Or at least answering to his name. Instead Finn communicates with pointed fingers and grunts, clicks and kissy sounds, having lost even the rudimentary babbling he was capable of two years ago, when he was diagnosed with autism.

Growing up as an only child, I was always fascinated with siblings. I loved to look for similarities in families I spied on buses. I relished the teasing that went back and forth between my friends and their brothers and sisters. I was determined to give Annabel someone who would share her memories and listen to her stories late at night. I never considered that anything could go wrong.