I spent a lot of time this week thinking about being a dad. I’ve only been one for a few years, but we’ve packed a lot into them: a miscarriage, two rough pregnancies, an autism diagnosis, and then a second kiddo on her own early intervention journey. But if appearing on Today Show with filmmaker Corbyn Tyson to discuss my participation in his documentary series, The Fatherhood Project, reminded of anything, it’s these five things that I want to share with my fellow autism dads.
5. Own your story
There’s that point early in the journey as an autism parent where you have to decide how open you’re going to be about your family’s struggles and joys. It’s that whole internal dialogue that makes the choice of whether to get an autism awareness bumper sticker a full-on crisis. I think autism mom’s have an easier time with this which I can only imagine has something to do with Instagram. But the point is this, dad: this is your story now too. Your life is different and, frankly, you just have to own it. If you need to sit with that for a while, I get it. At some point, soon, you’re going to have to start telling your story. And if my years as an educator have taught me anything it’s that the point at which you come to grips with and tell your own story is the point at which the magic starts to happen.
4. It’s not about you
I get that as men we are really just about a generation or so into owning our own feelings and stuff. I get that we’re still figuring out that we’re allowed to go to therapy and have identity crises. So there’s a reason we’re slow on figuring ourselves out. But as an autism dad, you’ve got to figure it out quick. I’m not saying you need to suppress it; not at all. I’m saying you need to be better and faster at processing your own hangups so you can get out of your kid’s way. Let me break it down for you this way: Your kid is not an opportunity for you to sort out your emotional junk on the fly. Our autistic kids need us emotionally healthy so we can teach them about their own emotional lives. Instead of mapping our own failures and ambitions, anxieties and dreams onto them, we need to find ways to tap into their talents and passions to guide them into a full and rich life of their own choosing. Move out of the way.
3. Give more away than you think you have
I’m convinced that I used to think that love, energy, compassion, grace, patience and whatever else we needed more of in this world were scarce commodities, things we needed to ration out to make sure we had enough of to make it to the end. It’s as if each time I was patient it depleted my stock, or something. It’s not true. I mean it feels like it is, absolutely. Each time one of Liam’s therapists encourages us to take on a new initiative I’m convinced that it will be time it ends my life. But I had this realization while jogging on the bike path this morning: love is an endless resource when you endlessly give it away. It makes not one lick of sense that every time I empty out what I thought was my last little bit of hope to make something happen for Liam, even more comes swooping in. It’s a miracle.
2. Be a partner
I’m sure there are many of you who are solo parents. It’s difficult for me to imagine how you handle the difficulties of parenting an autistic kiddo on your own, so the first round is on me should we meet one day. To the rest of you autism dads, please be the best partner you can be. If you don’t live with your kiddo’s other parent, I think this still applies. Partnering means, well, being a partner. One half of one. A while back, Courtney and I started using #teamoakes as an easy reference to the fact that we’re co-captains of the most important team playing the most important game. All this is easier when you can borrowing someone else’s strength when yours is depleted. The depths aren’t quite as low but the heights are much higher when you’re together. It’s another miracle.
1. Be a Dadvocate
Autism advocacy needs you. Dads need to join moms on the front lines in classrooms, communities, and the offices of our elected officials. There is so much work to be done and we need the talents and connections of autism dads to do it. It’s time to turn the privileges of your position as men into opportunities for our autistic family members. And this doesn’t end with your family and your kiddo. Liam needs you making noise over in your neck of the woods and your kiddo needs me making noise in mine. Every voice counts. Every day.