My 10 Biggest Therapy Takeaways as a Special Needs Dad

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Experiencing a great deal of stress brought on by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in my eldest son, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about myself, parenting and relationships from just over a year of psychotherapy.

1. Don’t give it back.

It seems like kids are hardwired to annoy you. My psychiatrist’s theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the best and most efficient ways children had of gaining attention, thus protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy you or yell at you, I learned I shouldn’t give it back. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.

2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love.

What I’ve learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist is that building resilience and confidence needs to start with love. Always remind them you love them, and never leave them wondering.

3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father.

Talking about feelings doesn’t come naturally to me, or to many men in general. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I would often shut down and go into “the cave.” Talking to someone about my frustrations helped me recognize and express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini-arguments, I’ve come to understand that…

4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable.

When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings with each other, mini-conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures can actually be healthy because they teach you important conflict resolution skills. The alternative is suppressing feelings and emotions, leading to wilder conflicts.

5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial.

When my eldest boy was diagnosed with ASD, his pediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn’t really listen. We felt guilty — like every minute not spent researching his condition and possible treatments would consign him to a life of misery. Our relationship suffered as a result. While time for ourselves and each other is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won’t be until they move out!), at least we’re more conscious of it now. I now know that if I’m able to get a round of golf in, it isn’t a selfish act — I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated and ultimately a better husband and father.

6. Your partner might need to come in with your to a therapy session.

When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other. Hopefully your partner is amenable to attending. Mine took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed she saw the value in the exercise.

7. Connecting to others is so important. 

Experiencing significant stress and anxiety, I naturally isolated myself for fear of burdening others. I also lacked the confidence to engage with others and felt guilty spending time away from my family. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life with whom I’d become distant.

8. Whatever doesn’t kill you…

My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. As a couple, you’re on a boat sailing in calm, pleasant seas. Everything seems OK on the surface. But you can’t stop wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure? Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick and we came pretty close to capsizing, but ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong in fact, and in some ways we’re glad we faced the storm in the first place — know we have no doubts about the strength of our boat and its storm-weathering capabilities.

At least I think that’s what he meant.

9. It’s important to seek help from someone you trust.

Culturally, asking for mental health help is seen as a sign of weakness. Hopefully by now people understand this is nonsense. After my psychiatrist I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family was undergoing, he simply said, “heartbreaking” — that one word showed me in an instant he got it and was here to help.

10. It’s OK to keep seeking help, even after you’re “fixed.” 

Although my family and I are no longer in “crisis” and many of our problems have largely been resolved, I continue to see my psychiatrist on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg — heal the break then send the patient on their way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health in an individual, however, is to keep seeing them once they have been “healed.” During this period, you can capitalize on what you’ve learned, achieving long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.

Follow this journey on The Adventures of T-Bone and Sea Bass.

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When My Wife Proved My Dad Wrong About My ‘Autism Quirks’

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This past December 7 marked the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also my and my wife Kristen’s third wedding anniversary. When I guest-speak on autism, I like to joke, “My wedding anniversary is December 7, and due to autism I came into my new family like a kamikaze  — a blazing whirlwind of fire.”

When I was a young adult and my dad became frustrated with my autism quirks, he would say, “You’ll never find a woman willing to accept your rigid routines.”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, has proven him wrong.

On our third date I revealed one of my main autism quirks: my inability to deviate from my rigid patterns. I told Kristen, “After work every night I spend two to three hours in Bible memory time. This daily routine empowers me to be able to quote over 10,000 Scriptures, including 22 complete books of the New Testament and more than 5,000 quotes.” Again, both my parents had agreed, “No woman in her right mind will put up with your memory time!”

Kristen, by her unconditional love, proved my parents wrong.

After we had been dating for three months I revealed another autism-induced quirk of mine: eccentric behavior. I carried around a stuffed prairie dog named Prairie Pup from kindergarten to sixth grade. I also collected and continue to collect Calico Critters: 3-inch animal figurines dressed in handmade outfits.

My Calico Critters collection reminds my coworkers and friends of a scene from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — hundreds of unopened boxes lined in perfect rows up against my bedroom wall at my parents’ house. With a concerned voice my dad said, “No woman will want a husband who collects children’s toys and stuffed animals.”

Again Kristen proved him wrong by her unconditional love.

As a gift for the one-year anniversary of our first date, Kristen gave me the Calico Critters Meerkat Family. Two years later we had Calico Critters on our wedding cake; the bride and groom were cats and the priest was a beaver. During our honeymoon in Chicago, as we walked from the train station to our hotel an angry honey badger stuffed animal in a storefront display window caught my eye. My special interest took the best of me and the honey badger found a new home.

My final autism quirk is sensory issues with certain smells and sounds. When I experienced meltdowns as a child from my dad using bleach to clean the bathroom, he would say, “No woman will want a husband who screams and throws a tantrum over the smell of a little bleach.”

Thank God Kristen proved him wrong.

Kristen has accepted my kryptonite weakness of electronic noises and bleach. She demonstrates her compassion and sensitivity to my sensory issues by not using nail polish in our apartment or playing music with bass.

Proverbs 31:12 describes my wife perfectly: “She brings her husband good, not harm, all the days of her life.” Thank you, Kristen, for loving me unconditionally even with all my autism quirks. In March the newest member of our family, Makayla Marie, will arrive. On April 5, Charisma House is publishing my book, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism,” and I have dedicated my book to my beautiful wife, Kristen.

Follow this journey on Spectrum Inclusion.

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To the Special Needs Parent Having a Pity Party

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Dear parents of a child with special needs,

I probably don’t know you, but I know that look you sometimes get. Maybe you’re feeling sorry for yourself, but you’re also feeling guilty about it. It can be common among us special needs parents, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

I just experienced that guilty sadness when my 10-year-old son had an epic meltdown within minutes of walking into a birthday party.  He hadn’t even taken off his coat before demanding that the host turn on more lights and then crumbling to the ground, screaming, swearing and crying when she said no.   

It’s ironic. We special needs parents lament about how our kids never get invited to birthday parties, and then when we finally get an invitation, we might wonder why we’ve accepted it.

It’s been a particularly difficult couple of days for me, and I’m feeling uncharacteristically bad for myself.

It’s time for a pity party.

You should know I almost always consider myself a glass-half-full kind of person. But this week my son keeps drinking from my glass, and now it’s empty.

He takes his first sip at the birthday party, and as the week progresses he keeps drinking.

He calls his brother a bunch of swear words. There’s a drink right there.

He smacks his sister on the back. That’s a gulp.

He refuses to come in from outside because he’s having too much fun. That’s a sip.

Finally he empties the contents of my glass by darting out into the street to retrieve a ball. He is about to return home when I turn around from the mailbox just in time to shout “Don’t move!” The oncoming car stops and lets him cross.

The scenario that plays in my head is much different. In this version, he is in the middle of the street and the car doesn’t stop. A parent should not have to worry about a 10-year-old running into the street.

So what do I do?

I hug my son because I’m so relieved he is safe, and then I plan to throw myself a pity party. You’re welcome to join me.  And not because misery loves company, but because sadness sometimes needs company. (Didn’t we learn that from the movie “Inside Out”?)

So now that you’re here, welcome.

Did you bring any wine?

How about brownies?

Not too many, I hope, because this party won’t last long. It can’t. Unfortunately I don’t have any brownies to offer, and I can’t justify opening a bottle of wine at 9 a.m.

I love a good pity party, but on one condition: It has to be short, and my kids aren’t invited. I guess that’s two conditions.

Feeling sorry for yourself sometimes is perfectly acceptable (and therapeutic) because every person deserves the chance to grieve. We need to accept and acknowledge our feelings even if they aren’t pleasant. We shouldn’t expect to be happy or positive all the time. That’s why I like to have a good but short pity party. 

At times I like to party solo by letting myself think all the bad thoughts, and sometimes that’s enough. There are other occasions where talking a walk is just what I need to work through all the feelings that shout in my head. It’s OK to eat an entire bag of M&Ms or my favorite, Jelly Bellys. Sometimes I call another autism mom to unload. She doesn’t have to say anything. Just listening is enough. I know she gets it.

On the day when I realized my cup was emptied, I told my son I was feeling sad. Right before he got on the bus I asked him what he does when he feels down.

“I cry,” he says.

I ask: “Does that help?”

“Yep.”

He’s right. I feel better.

The party’s over. It was a short one. It almost always is.

Like I said, bad or stressful things happen all the time, and it’s OK to grieve occasionally. Have a pity party in a way that works for you, but don’t stay too long because good things happen, too. Don’t our children give us so much more to celebrate? Common behaviors for other kids can be huge milestones for ours. And you don’t want to miss those joyful moments by spending too much time at your pity party – even if there are brownies and wine. 

Follow this journey on SpecialEv.com.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Why Supporters of a Boy With Autism Flocked to This Courthouse to Protest

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A family being sued because of the behavior of their child with autism is receiving a lot of support from their community.

Parul Agrawal and Vidyut Gopal are being sued by two families from their former Sunnyvale, California, neighborhood who claim the couple’s inability to control their 11-year-old son with autism constitutes a “public nuisance” and potentially caused property values to fall, NBC News reported. The lawsuit, filed by Kumaran Santhanam and Bindu Pothen and Robert and Marci Flowers, accuses Gopal and Agrawal of not doing enough to control their son who reportedly assaulted children as well as other people in the neighborhood.

In July, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against the parents and, after seven years in their former home, the family moved to another Sunnyvale neighborhood. At the judge-ordered, court-supervised mediation on Wednesday, Dec. 16, protesters lined up outside the courthouse to show their support for the Gopal family. However, the parties failed to settle the lawsuit at the mediation and now they’ll have to set a court date. 

We are very disappointed that the case did not settle today,” Gopal told NBC. “We came in very good faith to negotiate and settle this case and put this mater behind us. We were very disappointed that we were not met with the same good faith from the other side, and hence it would not settle.”

The case has implications beyond just this family, Areva Martin, the Gopal family attorney told ABC. Protestors and community members alike feel it could set a national precedent for how lawsuits regarding autism are dealt with in the future.

I find it offensive that people assume I have no compassion for an autistic family when I am simply trying to defend and protect my children from being assaulted,” Robert Flowers told Mercury News in November. “This is not about autism. This is about public safety.”

Get more on the story from the video below: 

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To the Loved Ones Who Don’t Get Why We Say No to Your Holiday Party

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My 4-year-old son usually behaves himself pretty well, and we’ve brought him places that other families with autistic kids are not always able to go: on planes, to Disneyworld, to the movies, major league ballparks, outdoor concerts and the ballet. Despite his inability to talk, he comes across as an easygoing, happy boy.

And he is, for the most part.

Over the course of our autism journey, my husband, my daughter and I have gotten pretty good at helping our little guy. Like most families with autistic children, we travel with a bag of tricks to break out when he needs them and techniques to use if we see that he is getting uncomfortable or melting down. We usually come across like we know what we’re doing.

That’s great, and it’s nice to be able to do “typical” things as a family. However, it can make it harder to explain to people that we have to turn down an invitation because we don’t think he can handle it. When people don’t see the meltdowns, it is harder for them to understand how difficult they can be to manage. Taking my son out is like performing a magic trick sometimes. It requires a large amount of practice and prep work beforehand, and can feel like just as much of an illusion. If I don’t perform the steps in the right order or in a specific way, the whole thing can come apart.

We have brought him into situations that might be uncomfortable for him. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised and he has a wonderful time. Sometimes, though, the only thing we can do is leave as quickly and quietly as possible. That’s OK, too. He is learning about the world, the world is learning about him, and even a failed excursion is a lesson for us.

There are also some things we know we still have to avoid: sitting in traffic for too long, traveling too late at night and places that are enclosed and noisy. He has the hardest time in strangers’ homes, especially houses that aren’t childproofed. Then all I can do is guess at what may be a problem, either as a hazard or a temptation, and try to anticipate my son’s every move. It can be exhausting and unsafe.

Sometimes, we’re just not up for that kind of an adventure. During the holidays, there is so much potential for sensory overload that it can be easier to just stay home. He doesn’t understand the excitement and enthusiasm of other kids, and it can be a little too much for him. Sometimes, yes, it is more important that he has his therapy sessions, especially when he’s off from school for more than a day or two. Sometimes parties with strangers in strange places set him off. You might not realize that something as simple as putting up holiday decorations makes your house feel unfamiliar to him.

We have to accept these things every once in awhile because it’s OK that he has limits. It does mean that sometimes we’re going to say no. It’s not that we don’t love you, or that we don’t want to see you. We do want to be there. We feel bad saying no, and it makes us sad to have to miss out on so many special occasions with you. We truly aren’t avoiding you. Unfortunately at times, things are harder than you know, and we have to do the easier thing. We have to do what is best for him.

We will continue to push him out into the world and expose him to new things. He has come so far already, and I have faith things will get easier. Please keep including us in your plans. Even when you know we’ll turn you down. As hard as it is to say no, it’s so nice to be asked and to know we’re included. And who knows, maybe the next time you ask, we’ll be able to say yes.

Andrea’s son and daughter next to a Christmas tree

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness during the holidays. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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8 Things I Wish I Knew Before My Autism Diagnosis at 22

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I am one of many women diagnosed with high-functioning autism in adulthood — far outside my developmental years. For me, my diagnosis (and my “new” life) came at the age of 22. For some women, it doesn’t come until late adulthood, if at all. These are some of the things I wish I knew before I received my diagnosis later in life. They’re also the things I want my friends and family to know now, because I was never able to express them effectively before.

1. You know just how much other people mean to you — but they don’t.

Before receiving my diagnosis, my close friends and family had a negative image of me. In their eyes, I was sometimes rude, I said inappropriate things at the wrong times or I said something honest when it was best to tell a little lie. I’ve been told that I don’t care enough about my friends, that I push people away and even that I don’t love my family. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality, I love and appreciate most of the people in my life to an almost unhealthy extent. My diagnosis gave me the life-changing reminder that you need to tell people you love them and to show as much appreciation as you feel.

2. You’ll find an amazing companion to share your life with, but it’ll take time and effort.

I was lucky enough to have my loving, neurotypical boyfriend at my side before, during and after I received my diagnosis. As one may imagine, we have a lot of struggles that are directly linked to my autism: communication issues, sensory difficulties and sometimes needing time to myself. As I mentioned above, I also have to remind myself to show my appreciation for him, which is sometimes as simple as remembering to ask him how his day was. However, our problems aren’t so unlike other couples’ that we can’t work through them — it just takes more consideration and effort. You’ll find someone, too, if you’re romantically inclined (but you might not be!). You’re just as capable of finding love as anyone else.

3. If you never reach out to your friends, your friends will never reach out to you.

When you’re feeling overloaded and just need time to yourself, it’s really easy to skip out on plans. You never want to disappoint your friends, so sometimes you don’t reschedule… because you might have to cancel again. Before you know it, it has been years since you last spoke to them. Be honest and upfront if your plans change, and put effort into connecting often.

4. You’re not “crazy.”

I suffered with mental health concerns for most of my life before receiving a diagnosis. I struggled with suicidal thoughts, self harm, mood swings, debilitating depression and even health problems brought on by stress. I was previously misdiagnosed with a myriad of mental illnesses and medications never worked. I thought I was a lost cause until I received my diagnosis. Now I have coping strategies and a community of people to turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

5. You’re not weird.

Are you obsessive? Super into animals or classical literature? A band most of your friends don’t care about? You’re not weird. Those obsessive interests are a perfectly normal part of your diagnosis. You care more about a single topic (or handful of topics) than most people do about any of their hobbies. You’re awesome, and you can harness that intense focus to do a lot of good in the world. Make art, write books and inspire others.

6. You’re not lazy or unintelligent.

I struggled to hold down a job and stay in college full-time before receiving my diagnosis. I now know that this was because of sensory overload, social exhaustion and executive functioning difficulties. In other words, I couldn’t juggle real life as well as other humans. Choose your jobs carefully, practice time management and take time to recharge at the end of the day.

7. You’re not ugly for dressing comfortably.

This one is mostly for the ladies, although it can spread across all genders. You’re not any less feminine for dressing comfortably because of your sensory issues. I’m often perceived as lazy and not “girly” enough, when I just dress for comfort most days. You’re beautiful no matter what you wear and don’t let society pressure you into thinking otherwise.

8. You’re you. And you’re wonderful.

Like me, you might be a mess most days. You may not be friends with your diagnosis right now. However, your diagnosis is a manual to living a more successful, fulfilling life. Use your strengths, know your weaknesses and work on the social aspects you struggle with. It’s so worth it.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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