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When I Realized I Was 'Checking Out' as a Dad of a Child on the Autism Spectrum

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In our small home, we have a few different rooms that serve multi-functional purposes. The kitchen has a dining area attached to it that makes it essentially one large room, the third bedroom is a guest room/office/library, and then we have a family room that serves as my son’s playroom, music and TV room. Tucked away in the corner of this room is a small table and two wicker chairs, which I like to claim for my own when I’m in there watching my son while he plays.

I always make sure to bring my laptop, as I find it’s rather convenient to sit and answer emails, check Facebook and do a variety of teaching related items, like grading or planning. My son sits and plays on the rug with a few of his favorite toys, maybe beats on his drums or pounds the keyboard a bit if he feels like it, but most of the time he sits watching his favorite shows streamed online to the TV.  When my son gets bored and decides to leave the room and go to another part of the house, I dutifully follow him around, and then upon returning to the family room, I go back to my table. This setup works great for me, but a little introspection forces me to consider, am I the best parent I could be, or am I really just checking out? Am I am being a good parent when spending time with my child who is on the autism spectrum means I am also focused on work related tasks.

There are many reasons why I could defend I am spending time with my son when I am focusing on work related tasks. After all, I work hard in my classroom teaching students with a variety of emotional and behavioral issues, on top of having the expected academic struggles. I am, like everyone else, entitled to a little “me time,” watching or listening to something mindless. But that does not have anything to do with the responsibility I have to parent my child. While I am pouring all of my energy and dedication, rightfully so, on all of the young people I teach, doesn’t my child equally deserve my attention? While I am sitting at my table in the family room doing a variety of tasks, including writing this post, shouldn’t I stop and just interact with him?

If you know my child, who is on the autism spectrum, you know he works hard all day at school and then therapy, and he needs the time at home to sit on the floor in front of the TV, engage in simple play and stim. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by me working or vegging or whatever it may be, and he isn’t the type of child who asks to play or share with what he’s doing.

The issue, to me, goes beyond what my child may be asking or even wishing for me to do, but the choice I’m making to not engage with him, and more importantly, knowing I’m not. It is the same knowing I have when I pull out my phone incessantly when I need to be paying attention to my family — moments when my loved ones are right in front of me and I replace their faces with a screen. Those times when my son is playing at the park, when he seems distracted on the playground equipment and I’m scrolling on my phone. When my son is demonstrating he is clearly bored by putting his hands on anything and everything and I repeatedly command him “No!” as opposed to actually engaging with him.

I think this is the razor thin line that we as parents of kids with disabilities walk every day — the balance between engaging and resting, between knowing when you need to be involved and when you can step back. There is nothing wrong with taking a break, as long as you don’t allow the break to “take you” so to speak, to not let your mindless distraction become your outlet.

We know for true self-care to take place, we need space to refill and replenish in truly healthy, positive outlets. This is the awareness that reminds us to spend quality time not just with the ones we love, but with ourselves as well, time for quiet and stillness, and for me, because of my beliefs, time for prayer and conversations with God. When we admit that we’re tired, worn out, frustrated and stressed, we come to a place of not having the shame that those feelings sometimes carry, but rather the ability to recognize those feelings and then change the narrative of how we’re using our time.

I’m writing this piece while my son is at therapy, and afterwards I will be taking the both of us for a haircut, which is always an interesting time because he still has a hard time due to the sensory overload experience. Usually, my wife joins us so she can help and we can get the experience done as quickly as possible for his sake. Afterwards, my wife takes our son home and then I get to have my haircut, by myself, just me and the sound of the clippers. I think this experience may be a good example of what I’ve just described here, as when it is time for us to be present — always mindful of my son’s needs — then making time for my own space. Meaningful, positive rest can truly restore me for the next time I will be fully present once again.

A version of this story originally appeared on Key Ministry.

Getty image by monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: April 22, 2019
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