According to a new 2017 global survey, men are taking “greater responsibility for the home and childcare” than previously in both emerging and developed economies as reported by Reuters. In 2013, the CDC reported a nationally representative survey which found that a large majority of fathers reported being heavily involved in hands-on parenting. (Jones and Mosher, 2013). Father involvement has been shown to result in better academic success, fewer behavior problems, and healthier eating habits for children in general. Recent studies, as reported in last June’s Autism Notebook, have pointed to similar positive outcomes for children growing up with autism.
Nonetheless, men still have a hard time facing things they can’t fix. The hurdles that accompany autism often leave men feeling powerless and speechless. It’s not unusual for a father to find himself at a loss of how to interact with a child who is different from the one he expected. However, as dads learn to deal with this sense of powerlessness, they discover what they CAN do to help their child (80% of whom are boys), their family, and themselves.
Focusing on what an individual can do opens up opportunities to live fulfilling and productive lives. The concept of neurodiversity as Steve Silberman described in NeuroTribes is “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
Corporations, government agencies, small businesses, and nonprofits are discovering the strengths that young people on the autism spectrum bring to employment, and they are starting to actively recruit them. The quirks that come with autism sometimes mask hidden strengths, such as intense focus, or a special skill with numbers and patterns. People with autism also like repetition which is an advantage in many workplaces. They can be great at catching errors; they don’t waste time socializing on the job; and they are loyal employees who are retained longer by their employer. This saves employers significant costs in recruitment and training.
Many of these initiatives are led by fathers and mothers of children with autism at Specialisterne, SAP Autism at Work, HP, Rising Tide Car Wash, etc. Despite these positive trends, we have a long way to go. A large percentage of individuals with high functioning or mild autism have extreme difficulty finding work. Many lack the social or soft skills that go into a typical job search. In 2015, Autism Speaks launched a website to match workers who have autism with prospective employers. (https://www.thespectrumcareers.com/ )
Fathers can help through action at the ground level
Traditionally, fathers have tended to “specialize” in play, whereas mothers “specialize” in caretaking and nurturance. A father’s play with his child is typically more active and rough-and-tumble, which gives them a distinctive role in supporting their child’s development through play. However, it tends to be more difficult to engage in play with a child who has more repetitive, and less varied play, as well as other challenging behaviors. Oftentimes fathers feel overwhelmed and are unaware of how to address these issues. As a result, the necessary but narrow focus on trying to eliminate troubling symptoms can place the father’s emotional life, marriage, and other children on hold indefinitely.
Taking action is one of the main ways that men show their love for their families. Here is an outline of a plan:
- Acknowledge your frustrations. Celebrate what’s going right! Give yourself permission to open up to the full range of your thoughts and feelings which may include fear, guilt, depression, anger, anxiety, hope and love. Some take autism in stride, but often it can feel like an emotional bomb at first. Unpleasant feelings will ebb and flow, often opening the door to hope and celebration in the little steps of developmental progress.
- Spend some time each day joining your child on the floor or at the table having fun, following your child’s lead, and building a connection. Your child with autism is still a child and needs more than therapy and school. Parents cannot control the outcome for any child, but they can certainly make a difference and have a rewarding relationship.
- Try to spend at least a little time each day with your other Typically developing brothers and sisters often feel rejected when their sibling doesn’t engage with them, sadness over not having a playmate, and sometimes embarrassment outside the home, not to mention having stressed out parents.
- Work at understanding the different perspective of your partner. Mothers, including those who work outside the home, are consumed by the day-to-day needs of raising a child with special needs. It’s hard to take a break from needs that do not diminish. While reports of an 80% divorce rate are unfounded, evidence does support increased stress, anxiety, and depression in both men and women as a result of raising a child with special needs.
- Take care of yourself and your relationship. Appreciate what your partner is doing right. Make time for each other, as you need each other more now than ever. All children need active, positive, energetic parents. In a very real sense, children cannot thrive if their parents are drowning. It might be impossible to have “date nights,” but it is conceivable to do little things for each other, thus nurturing your relationship.
- Attend as many appointments and IEP meetings as you can. Don’t hide behind your work as a reason not to participate. Your partner will feel less alone and more supported, plus your child will tend to get a better deal at the table with 2 active, involved parents.
- Find a way to connect with other fathers; whether it’s at a meeting or just hanging out at a school or community event. Share your story, acknowledge your needs, and talk about what works in your situation.
From my experience facilitating support groups, workshops, and counseling fathers several lessons stand out:
- Focusing on what’s going right
- Celebrating every success, large or small
- Not taking problems and behaviors personally
- Tempering expectations
- Becoming more humble
- Learning increased levels of patience
- Trusting the process their family is going through
- Embracing what “is” versus what is “supposed to be”
- Deepening commitment to their children and families
For me, my journey with my son’s autism has taught me to accept what I cannot change and to become a better man and a better father in the process. This has become clear as I see him happy most of the time and autistic all of the time. What I have seen in myself and others is that the long trajectory of loving and raising a child with autism bends toward acceptance.
Jones, J. & Mosher, W. D. (2013). Fathers’ involvement with their children: United States, 2006-2010. National Health Statistic Reports; no. 71. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Silberman, S. (2015). NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. New York: Penguin Random House.
Taylor, L. Men more involved in parenting than ever before: Global survey. Reuters, May 2, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-women-survey-idUSKBN17Y1RR?utm
Robert Naseef, Ph.D., is a keynote speaker, psychologist, and father of an adult son with autism. His TEDx talk, “How autism teaches us about being human” is on YouTube. His latest book is Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together (2013) by Brookes Publishing.