With men, there is often an awkward pause before they can find the words to speak. Not about sports—that’s usually easy—but about what it is like to be doing their best to face autism with no “fix,” no exit, just life-altering challenges. Then they share their struggles and what they are learning about how to relate to their children and families. This is some of the work I do as a psychologist who happens to also be the father of an adult child with autism.
As Nelson Mandela observed, “A boy may cry; a man conceals his pain.” There is a traditional male imperative to “suck it up,” so men tend to cry on the inside. On the outside we may be grumpy and irritable, but on the inside we are hurting. Life doesn’t stand still and wait for us. Families need fathers to express themselves, and to spend time teaching, playing, and otherwise engaged. Children with autism hunger for their fathers’ involvement and approval just like every other child.
In opening up, possibilities emerge for fathers about ways to connect with their children who relate and experience the world differently because of autism. For example:
• Their children may be drawn to Lego’s or video games as opposed to sports, and they want us to be there with them.
• They may struggle with language to express themselves, so we have to learn to read their nonverbal clues.
• Sensory differences and difficulty regulating emotion may trigger shutdowns and meltdowns so we have to learn to be sensitive to these issues.
Children with autism are also just children; growing up is about more than just the necessary therapies. So find something parent and child can do together and enjoy. It could be as simple as taking a walk or a ride in the car. Or get on the floor and play with cars or blocks in whatever way your child likes for starters.
By entering the autistic world of our children and understanding how their minds work, as opposed to trying to make them who we want them to be, we learn how to be with them. Only then can we grow together. Fathers involved in the daily lives of children inspire with their love and devotion.