Become a Better Parent to Your Autistic Child
As the year draws to a close, it’s a great time to reflect back on the past year, priming ourselves for success in the next year. Looking ahead to 2020, I think there are some fundamental guidelines that we – as Dads of autistic children – should follow. I call this practicing good mental hygiene.
1). Seek connection – There is a natural and inevitable isolation that occurs having a child on the spectrum. Further, the roles of father and mother become hard-core archetypal, typically because both are doing their best to support the child. Seek connection – meet up with other Dads, connect with your personal network by phone, e-mail, or text. Rebel against the mythopoetic stereotypes of independent stoicism or rugged individualism. Churches can also provide a powerful sense of community for us. Also, when connecting with others, forego the standard pleasantries we all default to - work, the recent weather, fantasy football. Be willing to get right into a deeper conversation. Your time is precious – don’t waste it with banal conversation.
2). Humor – Look at the levity that lies beneath every situation with your child. Check out exhibit A – the photo associated with this post. Oh, the joy and humor of a text exchange with your son who always wants to bring it right back to a math algorithm that he is obsessing about.
Even when confronting some of the more difficult situations we have as Dads, like a meltdown, we can meet them with a certain level of humor. When my son has a meltdown after a Patriots loss, or wakes up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack, my dark sense of humor may ring the doorbell. When the Patriots lost to Miami in 2018 after a botched final-second Special Teams play, my son spiraled into a hyper-intense meltdown for a full 45 minutes (see my story – “The Meltdown”). During the meltdown, I shouted “Stop! Stop! STOP! It could be worse – you could be a Browns fan!” My son kept screaming, but a small part of me laughed at myself in the moment.
3). Go Deeper into the Feeling – When you’re neck-deep in an intense situation, such as the middle of a meltdown, it feels like it will never end. Resist the urge to resist it. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and alter your inner monologue to “This totally and completely sucks, but I will be able to get through this. I know this will ultimately end.” Resist the urge to numb the pain by grabbing a beer, wolfing down a family-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, fantasy football, or Netflix binging. This is how we numb our pain, as opposed to allowing ourselves to feel the feeling. It’s okay to be irritated when your son has non-stop conversations with Alexa in your kitchen – acknowledge your irritation and move forward.
4). Exercise – Take care of yourself first, so you can take care of those whom you love. Whatever it is that works for you – hitting the gym, going for a run, or following the Japanese practice of “taking a nature path”, reframe this as a necessary therapy that not only benefits you, but also benefits the family. I always think of the metaphor of a gas tank in a car. As the Dad of an autistic child, you can feel like you are constantly adding fuel to the gas tanks of every other car, but how will your car even start if you never put gas in your own car?
5). Practice self-compassion – Having talked to many Dads over the past year, I am amazed how hard we are on ourselves. Avoid checking all the boxes to perfection – we are human - the laundry will pile up, the leaky faucet may not get fixed, and there’s plenty of yard work that you’ll never ever get to. Trust me – the Jones who live next door are not judging the amount of brush in your backyard -- you are. Your barometer of success is who you are as a Dad, not what you do.
6). Know Your Resources – The hardest thing for us as men to do is to ask for help. Know your resources. There is a lot of support for you out there. From larger nationwide organizations like Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org, or to more grassroots efforts like www.autismdadvocate.org., reach out, connect, and know you are not alone.
One of the most courageous steps a man can take is to seek counseling. The stigma associated with mental health has steadily been lifting, a wonderful trend to see. Without counseling, I have seen fathers of autistic kids fall into the dangerous abyss of what I refer to as the three D’s: depression, divorce, and death – be it a metaphorical, spiritual death, or in the most extreme cases - suicide or infanticide. If you feel that you are lapsing into any of the three Ds, send an e-mail immediately to www.autismdadvocate.org. You are not alone.