Becoming a father for the first time in 1979 was a life-altering experience. Those first smiles, first steps, and first words seemed magical. Then at 18 months, my son stopped talking, began flapping his arms, and fussing. From those first symptoms until now, I have been living and learning about how to be a father and how to help other men raising children with autism and other special needs. This article summarizes some tips for men and their partners.
First, men need to learn about autism. When my son was diagnosed with autism, I thought my head was going to explode. I couldn't get the word autism out of my mouth. What starts the process of being able to talk about it is stepping up and getting involved in caring the child’s needs. A father finds himself useful when actively involved in helping his partner meet their child's needs. There is an overwhelming amount of information on the Internet. I recommend starting with major organizations such as the Autism Society, Autism Speaks, the Arc, etc.
Second, men need to revisit and adapt traditional male norms. There is a typical male code for handling overwhelming emotions. In the face of an overwhelming experience such as autism, men are expected to keep the lid on emotions, take charge of practical details, support others, and take on the challenge as a chance to problem-solve or even as a test of traditional masculinity. However, men are not supposed to lose control, to openly cry, to worry, or to express overwhelming sadness. Unfortunately this doesn’t work well with mothers.
Asking a man how he feels does not start a conversation. Instead try guy talk, such as:
• What’s being a father like for you? Tell me more. (Curiosity works better than empathy)
• I need to know to be closer to you as your friend/wife/brother/etc.
• It takes courage to open up, and I admire you for that.
• Let’s figure out a plan to go forward. (men do best with some kind of plan)
Third, men need to strengthen the bond with our child. This is the same child you fell head over heels in love with at the moment of birth, and your child needs you. Although men certainly need to learn how to listen and open up, they relate best through action. I wanted to be a better parent than my father when I held my son Tariq for the first time in 1979. I also expected Tariq to become a better son, a better man than me. I looked at my son and saw myself, only better. His diagnosis of classic autism shattered that reflected vision like a broken mirror.
This broken mirror leaves many fathers, especially those of boys with autism, feeling powerless and shamed, and 80% of children diagnosed with autism are boys. They love their children and do not want to fail them. Men respond better to having some kind of action plan. So the action plan I give men is: Find something you enjoy doing with your child. You may have to start with something your child enjoys that you yourself are not really into. But start with that. Make contact. And from that contact, find the things you both enjoy doing together.
Fourth, connect with other men in similar situations. Find other men to share thoughts and experiences with at your child’s school or at a local autism organization. The Fathers’ Network at www.fathersnetwork.org is a great place to start on the Internet. There are many essays by fathers there who are raising children with autism and other special needs.
Fifth for women, remind your partner that you don’t want or need him to fix everything, merely to listening and showing his caring is often enough. Tell him what he is doing right which helps him feel valued and secure. When possible ask for help in finding solutions--even if you think you already have one. This makes it easier for a man to listen and not be overwhelmed by emotion. Remember to plan time together as a couple. This is the first thing to go under the enormous pressure and taking care of your relationship is vital for both parents.
If you find these tips helpful, you can download the chapter on fathers from my new book, Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together under the resources tab at http://products.brookespublishing.com/Autism-in-the-Family-P655.aspx. Also I will be facilitating monthly on line discussions titled “Fathers Roundtable: Guy Talk about Raising Children with Autism and other Special Needs” at www.autismbrainstorm.org.
Don’t forget to find something you enjoy doing with your child. It can change your life. Fathers and mothers do not control autism; there is no cure, and it waxes and wanes often unpredictably. Parents do have a lot of control over the relationships in the family. Focusing on your relationships is an action plan—see where it can take you.
Robert Naseef, Ph.D., is the father of an adult child with autism. He is the author of the new book, "Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together" from Brookes Publishing, which covers living with autism from diagnosis through adulthood. He is a practicing psychologist at Alternative Choices in Philadelphia. Visit him on the internet at www.alternativechoices.com