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What My Autistic Son Taught Me About Investing in Emotional Capital

A heartwarming episode about the value of investing in emotional capital

When a person feels psychologically safe and they know that people around them truly care about them, they will make every effort to connect with others, even when they are nonverbal autistic individuals...

Something amazing happened last Friday during our thrice-a-week video call with Sebastien, my 27-year-old, non-verbal autistic son. No, he wasn't quoting Shakespeare, nor were we conversing like you and I would. Though literate, Sebastien still preferred to express himself through his body language and his artistic creations like his paintings...

At the start of the call, Sebastien suddenly ran into his bedroom and flipped open a folder containing his colouring pages. He stabbed hard at one of the colouring pages with his finger (see below) while repeating a series of words and even spelling them out. His voice was loud, insistent, and atypically clear. When Sebastien speaks like that, it is a signal that he is making a big effort to be understood because he wants something.

Attribution: Colouring page illustration by Jennifer S. Stay, Colouring by Jean-Sebastien Choo.

Wanting to meet his request, Hari (Sebastien's carer, standing next to Sebastien in Bali) and I (in Singapore) were like two enthusiastic, but clueless gameshow contestants shouting out words. Although we could make out a handful like "window," "duck," "ride,""rides," and "rider," we couldn't fully put two and two together. While I surmised that the entire picture resembled a window and Hari thought that the bird in the picture referred to the duck, we still didn't know what Sebastien meant to say.

At the same time, I was certain that he had said "rider." During the call, I even wrote it down on a piece of paper and showed him via the phone screen. His intense, attentive gaze told me that I was onto something. You see, "rider" is associated with a piece of playground equipment that Sebastien likes to play on. When he hopped on this ride during our holiday in Australia, back on August 16, 2015, he had proudly called himself a "FROG RIDER."

Sebastien bouncing merrily on "Frog Rider" on August 16, 2015, in Australia.

However, I couldn't figure out the connection between the colouring page and the "frog rider." Sebastien settled down eventually to our usual video call routine, seemingly satisfied by our echoing of the words he was saying. There wasn't a special request that Sebastien wanted us to meet; we could relax.

Still, I told Hari to send me a photo of the colouring page later. At the same time, I was prepared to shelve this incident under one of those "I-don't-know-what-Sebastien-wanted" moments. But Hari did one better: he asked Sebastien to type out what he had said during the video call:

Sebastien's typing on Hari's phone.

And suddenly, with this series of associations, it became clear that Sebastien was sharing a memory of his past through associational thinking. He wasn't requesting anything; rather, he was sharing an eight-year-old memory that was triggered by the colouring page. For that moment in time, Sebastien gave us a privileged glimpse into his inner life.

But what was so beautiful about this episode was that Sebastien wanted to share this memory with us and made the effort to communicate with us, even though it was one of his least preferred things to do in the world.

It was the ultimate testimony to our seven years of loving Sebastien for exactly who he was and caring for him — this was the fruit of our investment in emotional capital I could not have been more proud of or more grateful to our caregiving team in Bali, particularly Hari.

And "decoding" this communication was "no child's play." It required in-person and online teamwork, as well as the use of images and words, across space and time. That is the kind of people Sebastien has in his life now.

He no longer has to feel so alone. When a person feels psychologically safe and they know that people around them truly care about them, they will make every effort to connect with others, even when they are nonverbal autistic individuals.

In our modern life, we often prioritise "short and sweet" interactions and aim to score quick wins. But in taking the time to put in the effort to cultivate relationships, you may experience something better than anything you could've possibly imagined.


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