As a dad to two special needs children, sometimes it feels good just to hear you’re doing an okay job

Gary D, his wife Mona and their sons

First and foremost, I want to wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day. My dad turns 95 this year and will be celebrating his 69th Father’s Day! My mom and dad raised 11 children – a feat that still amazes me today. It makes me reflect on just how different our journeys through fatherhood have been, but in other ways are very much the same. Let me explain:

My 10 siblings and I are healthy and “normal” or “neuro-typical.” My two boys, Gary T., 19, and Jack, 17, are both autistic – something my dad still has a difficult time understanding. As the years went by, he watched as our boys grew and our lives have continued to change. He saw the struggles, the triumphs and everything in between, which I truly cherish.

Recently, my father said to me, “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t think I could have handled this.” I looked at my dad in wonder. This is the man with 11 children who has always been asked how he did it! Then my wife reminded me of something that happened to me while out shopping at Home Depot with my son Jack.

We were getting items off the shelf and putting them in the cart and Jack started having a meltdown. I was able to calm him down by speaking slowly and softly and helping him to slow his breathing. I kept my eyes on him, so he knew I was right there with him. He eventually regained his composure and we went about the rest of our shopping trip. I didn’t notice during the episode, but there had been another customer in the same aisle watching the entire interaction between me and my son. She approached us and told me that she was a retired special needs aide for a grammar school and had worked with autistic children for many years.

Gary D. and one of his children on the autism spectrum

At first, I was a little caught off guard because most times it’s dirty looks or people running in the opposite direction when one of the kids is having an episode in a store. This woman was very kind and her words of praise about how I handled the situation really made me feel good – like I was doing something right as a dad. She told me that she considered any parent of a special needs child as a true hero, which hit home with me and I felt myself get choked up. After our brief yet meaningful conversation, I thanked her for her kind words and continued down the aisle. The rest of the shopping trip – and even the rest of the day – seemed so much better because of her words.

Gary D. son on the autism spectrum

Not only did this interaction make me feel good, but it gave me a revelation about my own father and how he viewed my life as a parent. He would see instances like these, ones that aren’t always the prettiest but always emotional and raw, and how they look so drastically different than his days as a parent with teenagers. Not having any experience or knowledge about autism, he would see how we were forced to navigate pitfalls and sudden meltdowns without warning and still be able to get through the day. Not that he didn’t have to deal with meltdowns and “bad” behavior from 11 kids, but my situation was just “atypical.”

So, my life as a dad to date has been quite different from my father’s experience in many ways but very much the same too. Whatever your experience with fatherhood has been, just know you’re doing great, and your children appreciate you. Now sit back, relax (even if it’s just for a few minutes) and enjoy your special day.

To all the heroes out there, Happy Father’s Day!

Gary D.

Gary D., father to children on the autism spectrum


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