To the Dads of Children With Autism, From a Fellow Dad
I put my son on the school bus today. He was excited and happy because he enjoys the bus ride to school. The bus pulled up and I walked with him up the driveway and to the bus door. I told him goodbye and after a little prompting, I received a goodbye in return. He boarded the bus and the bus pulled down the street to turn around. I waited at the end of the driveway and waved to my son as the bus went by (I did this more for myself than for him). He did not wave back.
I am the father of an autistic child. My wife and I have three children: our oldest son is 11 years old, our middle son is 8 years old and our baby girl is 9 months old. Our middle son was diagnosed as autistic when he was 2. As luck would have it, my wife taught as an early childhood special education teacher for several years prior to our son’s diagnosis. She is patient, understanding, caring and loving. The same cannot be said for me. I was quick tempered; impatient and high-strung doesn’t begin to cover it. However, after eight years and counting and through good times and hardship, our family is getting by.
This is a father’s perspective on autism. I’ve typically maintained silence or vagueness regarding my thoughts and feelings on my son’s autism. I think there are a lot of fathers like me in similar situations. We were raised to be the backbone of the family. We think we should not show doubt or fear, so we bury those feelings and only expose them to our spouses (if at all). Typically we don’t even talk to our friends or family about our concerns because, unless you have an autistic child, you simply cannot understand exactly what it’s like. I don’t mean to imply that friends and family don’t care, only that they may lack the true understanding of the situation. I’ve seen the judgmental eyes of family or friends that seemed to say, “Yes, their child is autistic, but there is no excuse for that kind of behavior. It has to be upbringing or lack of discipline,” or “I cannot believe that child can’t use the bathroom, dress themselves, be quiet, etc.” Once again, this is not out of malice, but misunderstanding. Also, as much as my friends want to be helpful on the subject, guys’ advice is usually oversimplified: “Keep your head up,” “It’ll be all right,” “Rub some dirt on it,” just to name a few suggestions.
For all these reasons and more, I’m writing this to let other fathers of autistic children know they’re not alone. I know some of your fears and worries.
I believe I know how you felt when you heard the diagnosis. Maybe you had to hold back tears and be strong. I might know your first concerns, too: Will they ever talk or be able to express themselves? Will they be potty-trained or dress themselves? Will they understand danger or dangerous situations? Will they have friends, and the most heartbreaking, will they understand how much their family loves them? As your child grows and you begin to see answers to your initial worries (that can be good news or bad), adolescence quickly approaches and new questions take hold. Will they ever get to drive a car, play a sport, go out on a date, get a job, live on their own, fall in love, get married and have their own child?
I know you love your children and wouldn’t trade them for the world. I know when people tell you, “Have hope, have faith, pray and God will give you the answers,” that doesn’t console you when you’re changing an 8-year-old’s diaper, stopping them from hitting themselves or watching them cry, unable to tell you what’s wrong. I know what it feels like to be pessimistic. I know and understand the weight on your heart.
I also know you’ll never give up on your child. I know you will fight harder (more therapy, more activities, more time together, more understanding). You will do everything you can think of because you love your child. Then through all the heartache and worry, I know you are rewarded. Every time that child smiles, it will be that much brighter. Every hug you get will be that much tighter. Every time they laugh, it seems that much louder.
I believe there are no little victories with autism. Every step forward, every improvement no matter how slight is a huge accomplishment — not just for your child but also for you. Children with autism do not have an easy road, but they need their parents to get down it.
I did not write this for pity or praise. I’m writing to tell all fathers out there — I know how you feel. I’m one of you. I’m sympathetic and respectful of you. You are not alone. I believe we all feel the same things. Don’t let those feelings own you. Love your children; they will give you hope. Love your spouse; they will give you love in return. Love your family and friends; they will give you support even when you don’t realize you need it.
P.S. To all the mothers of autistic children, please don’t take offense to this letter. I certainly do not mean to imply you don’t have the same thoughts, feelings and concerns. I could not do anything without my wife. She is the reason I have made it this far. I simply wrote this from a father’s perspective because I think men are less vocal on this subject, and I wanted to give a voice no matter how small.
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