I’d just finished talking to a group of parents at a local school about my experience raising a child with autism from babyhood to young adulthood. There was a lively Q&A session at the end with the mostly female audience. I noticed a burly man sitting toward the back. He didn’t look like he came with anyone. Our eyes connected several times during the Q&A, but he never raised his hand.
Just as the group was filing out and I was packing up to leave, the man approached me. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked. “My son is 4 and was just diagnosed with autism.” He paused, looked down at his feet, and then looked up again, his face screwed up in an effort to hold back tears. “Do you have any advice for me? How did your husband deal with it? I thought there would be more guys here…”
How my husband dealt with it was not a story that I thought would help this dad (in denial in the beginning, leaving me to do most of the heavy lifting, but now he is all in).
“I have a forum for parents on Facebook,” I said. “A lot of dads read it. Let me ask them.”
So here’s what I posted in the forum:
“Fathers of older children with autism: What is one piece of advice you would give to fathers of newly diagnosed children?”
I asked, and did I ever get insightful answers. Here’s a sampling of my favorites:
1. “Love and support your child in their dreams, interests and aspirations because they have them. Don’t ever be ashamed of them. Be proud when they slip their hand in yours as you enter a public place. Grow to love the unique way they think. And realize there are special talents inside of each one of them that will blossom if their dad cultivates it.” – Craig Curtis
2. “Man up. Be a dad, not just a father. Take your child out into the world, take them to a fenced-in playground every day when you get home from work for an hour. Take your child to a science center, to a farmer’s market, to church, to football games. They are children and they model you. They do it differently, but they do it, so do things with them. Put their toys away when they go to sleep in an organized fashion. Stage them in social settings every night. Get time for yourself, and time for your marriage…
This was the first and best advice I got from my sons’ doctor: love your child. I have two with autism. They are doing great, both 15 years old. They are independent, playing sports, interested in friends, and just wonderful people.” – Don Sutton
3. “Accept your kids for who they are. Encourage them to be themselves; don’t force them to be someone they are not.” – Ron Junk
4. “I have to keep reminding myself of the poem “Welcome to Holland.” I looked forward to baseball games and Cub Scouts. But instead, we do elevator rides and take tours of the bus barn. Things that my son is interested in. You have to change your expectations and just roll with it.” – Jason Wiederstein
5. “Love them the way any child deserves to be loved.” – Chip McInnis
6. “Go with your gut, it’s never wrong and mostly right. Don’t be afraid to cry, it’ll happen often and it helps. Stop asking “Why him?” and start asking “What can I do?” What’s right for other kids with autism isn’t necessarily right for mine. There are lots of people who want to help, and very few who know how to, so figure out who they are and accept their help. Whatever the unsolvable problem or behavior is today will be gone soon and replaced by another one.
“And… make alone time for you and your partner.” – Alex Harris
7. “The child you walked into the DX appointment with is the same one you walked out with.” A word does not change your love and commitment to that child. – John Horton
8. “Treat them like the others, with patience and understanding. Life will fill in the voids.” – Jim Odwyer
9. “Love them unconditionally. Allow them to grow. And try to keep up.” – Charles Hicks
A version of this post originally appeared on Laura Shumaker’s website.
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