Today is World Autism Awareness Day - April 2. On Sunday, many Christians will celebrate Easter, a holiday whose core themes are of sacrifice and rebirth - this connection isn’t lost on me today.
The sacrifices associated with being the father of an autistic son have enabled me to experience a spiritual rebirth - one for which I will always be grateful.
It is still unclear what actually causes Autism. We know it can affect several siblings in the same family, so it’s reasonable to think that there must be some connection from the child’s parents, or their generic history.
Here’s what doesn’t cause Autism -- vaccines. Or inattentive parenting. Or the child’s physical environment. Or some specific early event where some parents swear that their child just “wasn’t the same” after. You can’t catch autism, it doesn’t spread from child to child, like a contagion. It just is.
Autistic children are so amazingly diverse. Some have such high levels of intelligence that they fall into the savant category, by which their talents exceed those of neurotypical people (remarkable calendar calculations, mathematical abilities, drawing or mechanical reproductions), though this stereotype has been far too promoted by Hollywood.
Some show exceptional abilities in very specific fields of interest. Many have average intelligence. Many more have learning disabilities and lower functioning skills, - this means they struggle to look after themselves and need help with daily lives, even into adulthood.
Autistic children also often have comorbidities, like ADHD, mental health conditions - such as anxiety or depression, or epilepsy. This adds even further complexity to Dads who are trying their best to help their kids.
With therapies, ASD children can cope and assimilate better into their environments: speech therapies, occupational therapies, behavioral therapies, social skills education, and vocational skills training (for those entering the workforce). My son has participated in several of these, and they have been tremendously beneficial.
For me, the most difficult part of being the father of an autistic child is not my son, but those outside his circles, those who pepper me with questions like “will he ever be able to lead a normal life? Will he go to a normal school?” The word “normal” is so profane to me. I know my body language winces when someone utters this word to me. My son is so genuinely perfect, that I forget others don’t see him the way I see him. They look at him, judge, and evaluate his behaviors - his inconsistent eye contact, his mild stimming, his occasional need to interrupt. They must be thinking to themselves - this child needs to learn, needs to learn to fit in, if there are any hopes that he will lead a normal life. (wince)
There is no cure for Autism, but just as the word “normal” is a trigger word for me, so is the word “cure”. What exactly does the word “cure” mean? It’s purely nonsensical in the context of autism and neurodiversity. By this reasoning, should we cure left-handedness? Should we cure redheads? Should we cure those that have no interest in sports? Autism is merely a different operating system, iOS vs Android. Different, not inferior.
So how can you help a Dad with a child who’s autistic?.............
The answer is so beautiful in it's simplicity…...you can never go wrong from a place of curiosity, and you can never go wrong from a place of compassionate listening.
I’ve spoken candidly and vulnerably about the phenomena of isolation and loneliness that assails Dads of autistic kids - feeling judged, feeling evaluated, feeling like an outcast in a society that values likes, followers, image, and one-way communication.
Candidly, I’ve introduced my family to new friends, whom we never hear from again after the first meeting. It’s occurred often enough that I’ve finally got the message.
I’ve observed the body language, facial expressions, and sidebar comments from adults around my son, and every one of them hurts. You don’t think that I see it, but I see it…….and it hurts.
So when you meet one of these superhero Dads…..resist the urge to lecture to him about the latest article on autism you read, or how your wife’s sister’s best friend heard from a Mom at her daughter‘s bus stop about this revolutionary therapy that cures autism, and that you should look into it, because c’mon, man….don’t you want your son to lead a normal life?
The silver lining on World Autism Awareness day is the community of support Dads of ASD kids offer one another - the camaraderie, the compassionate empathy, the atta-boys. It’s the boys’ club that actually wants me to be a member, the fraternity with no initiation rites or hazing. You're in because of who you are, not your image, and that’s a wonderful thing…..
Dads of autistic kids….you get it. You totally get it. When I meet you, our conversations start in the middle, not the beginning. We don’t have to explain, provide background or context, explain our rationale or reasoning. We get right into it. We look each other right in the eye, and there is an unspoken understanding - “I see you……I get you…...”
On this day, I ask Dads of ASD kids to support one another, to actively take that first step - send that text, send the email, call your friend. Because you get it. You totally get it.
You may be saying, “but I need support, Paul. I need help”. On this Easter holiday whose themes are sacrifice and rebirth, I assure you - nothing will help you more than helping another Dad. And you’ll feel so much better for having done it………...
If you are the father of an autistic child, you are not alone. Autism Dadvocate is here to help. Drop us an email and subscribe to our newsletter. We’d love to have you in our tribe…...