Men find it extremely difficult to talk about a problem they cannot fix. Of course, women want to fix the problem as well but generally have an easier time talking about problems. I know about this dilemma firsthand as the father of a now adult child with autism. Learning how to talk about our child’s condition is a vital step in being able to engage actively with our families and with the professionals we turn to for help.
Our tender and heartfelt emotions are not stereotypically masculine. Most men are comfortable being grumpy, irritable, or angry. Even though the role of fathers has changed considerably in our lifetime, some degree of irritability or anger is still the traditionally acceptable emotion for men.
We need to model for our families that we can express the tender emotions inside us but typically hold in. It’s okay to let a tear roll down your cheek when watching a movie or a tv show such as “This is Us” during an emotional scene. Let’s not pretend something just got in our eye. It’s ok to admit that we are afraid, such as when you’re out with the family, and another car slams on the brakes or swerves and narrowly avoids hitting your car.
It’s exhausting to pretend to be “strong” all the time. Keeping a stiff upper lip when sad or afraid is part of the traditional boy code. The unwritten rules of how to be a real boy or a real man are conditioned into our brains from early on. A “real man” is thought to be stoic and unemotional, physically strong, and doesn’t show weakness or ask for help. Fortunately for everyone, the #MeToo and Times Up movements are challenging us to look deeper and beyond the stereotypes that serve as gender straitjackets.
A man who cooks a fancy dinner for his family, for example, shows his daughter and his son that cooking isn’t inherently female. Teaching a daughter to mow the lawn or fix a leaky faucet shows these tasks are not inherently male. Men tend to be action oriented. Being more fluid with roles can create a discussion of what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be a female or male in today’s world.
On the plus side, our action-oriented, fixing mode is how we instinctively show our love and devotion to our families. While we all do so much to earn a living, fix stuff around the house, and drive our children to activities and therapies, it is vitally important to take that extra step to listening with keen attention. Sometimes this is all that is asked for and the only action we need to take; at other times, it leads to the needed action.
Nonetheless, raising a child on the autism spectrum can bring steep challenges. 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 with autism (80% of whom are boys).
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.
We need to spend some time each day joining our child on the floor or at the table having fun, following our child’s lead, and building a connection. Your child with autism is still a child, and we are still men and fathers. Our sons and daughters need more from us than a roof over their heads, therapy, and school.
From my experience facilitating support groups, workshops, and counseling fathers and families several key lessons stand out:
- Focus on what’s going right
- Celebrate every success, large or small
- Remember not to take things personally
- Temper expectations
- Learn increased levels of patience
- Embrace what “is” versus what is “supposed to be”
As I reflect on Father’s Day, our struggle needs no longer be framed in how to be a real man. A better goal is becoming our best selves and comfortable with who we are. In that process, we can help our children and family be their best selves as well. We need a fluid way to think about gender. The reality is that we’re all in this together, and we have a shared responsibility to make a better world for women and men along with the children in our care.