In my own words: Father’s Day from the perspective of an autistic dad
June 16, 2021
My name is Jeff R., and I’m a dad on the autism spectrum. I was officially diagnosed in 2010, but I always knew I was different than other people. My 25-year-old son Jonathan has Down syndrome and was diagnosed with autism as a young child.
Through the years I’ve taken many lessons that I learned from my own father and passed down to Jonathan. Lessons like “let your child see the love you have for each other as parents” and “tell your children that you’re proud of them and let them know that it’s okay to be different.” Today, at 63 years of age, I’m celebrating my 25th Father’s Day and reminiscing on the more than two and a half wonderful decades I’ve gotten to be a dad.
There have been struggles and successes, good and sad times , but one thing has remained constant; the love my wife, Esther, and I have for our son is endless and the pride we feel when we look at him grows stronger every day. God promised special care and blessings to our children, and he has been faithful in so many ways. Jonathan grew up loving God, music and people and trying his best to be a blessing and a joy to others.
Learn more about Jeff’s journey as an autism dad on the spectrum in this special Father’s Day Q&A:
When did you realize what it meant to be on the spectrum?
All my life, before I was diagnosed, I felt like I was always messing up. I wound up blaming myself for everything and had a lot of self-hatred and image problems. I felt like the Hulk having to keep the monster inside of me at all times. When I found out I was on the spectrum, I wondered how much I should disclose about my autism and who I should talk to about it.
What are some of your biggest challenges as a result of your ASD?
My executive functioning and thought processes were all messed up when I was younger. I learned logic from Mr. Spock on Star Trek and relied on scripture a lot. As a general rule, if my brain was telling me to go left, I knew I had to go right. As far as personal connections with others - am more or less indifferent to whether I have them - but I have pleasure in engaging in them. I often find that I have difficulty knowing how much and what to talk about. I tend to engage because everyone else is doing it, but don’t understand the boundaries. I have difficulty grasping concepts but can try to find the route to particular destinations. Basically, I had to learn to go through life copying what others were doing and how they were acting, although I didn’t understand the purpose and reason for it.
What are some of your biggest strengths?
Lots of self-analysis. I find I value people and appreciate blessings in life and that true treasures and riches are the people in your life. I think I am more analytical in my approach to many things and simply need to embrace it. Sometimes we over analyze and worry, but I’ve learned to just sit back and do my best to let God handle the rest. Philippians 4:13 says “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” It doesn’t mean that God keeps you from problems, or automatically takes them away, but sometimes he just gives you strength to get through situations.
When you found out that you were going to be a dad, what thoughts ran through your mind?
I was excited at first. I guess I wanted a part of me to be normal and I thought being a father would allow for that. It was also a blessing and something to share with my wife, Esther. When we found out he had Down syndrome, I wanted to make sure we saw our child for who he was, not his disability.
What did you do to prep for your life as a dad before your child was born?
We got lots of baby things. I spoke to my dad a lot as well. He and his father had a strained relationship, so our relationship had its ups and downs for many years, but eventually we became close. When I found out how his father treated him, I realized what a wonderful father I actually had. He was able to overcome so much trauma from his past and be there for me.
How has life changed since the birth of your son?
Esther and I knew God wanted us to be together, but we didn’t know why. I always knew that God had a purpose for me, but I didn’t know what it really was. After Jonathan was born this became the purpose for everything. It was weird but I didn’t see myself as just Jonathan’s dad (although that became my main identity) but I also saw other special children and those who loved my son, as my children too in a way.
What advice can you give to other autistic people who are preparing for the arrival of a little one?
Our mission in life isn’t having a perfect child but trying to become a perfect parent. Don’t expect perfection – just do your best and blessings will happen. I remember the first time Jonathan bumped his head on a table. He was bleeding and crying, which led me to feel like such a failure. Don’t panic and don’t give up when you hit rough patches. Beware of the me. Don’t let your love be conditional. Love is thinking about the other person first and being willing to endure and sacrifice for those people. Lastly, work on your relationship with your spouse/partner. Compromise is key and find ways to communicate.
What are a few life lessons you hope to pass down to your child?
I think love your wife and make sure your children see that love. I know my parents had disagreements, but they never did it in front of us. I saw my dad sacrifice for us, making sure there was food on the table even if he had to do multiple jobs. My father taught me that manhood is accepting responsibility. The truest and most manly people I see are those who love their children and spend time with them.
Today, Jonathan loves his grandpa and wants to spend as much time with him as possible. The first time I heard, “son, I love you and I am proud of you,” was from God. Thankfully, that changed as I got older, and I started hearing that from my earthly father and Jonathan’s grandfather. I see that Jonathan needs that affirmation a lot from his family and my primary duty is to provide that.
Have you thought about the future and speaking to your son about autism and some of the ways it’s impacted your life?
Jonathan has quite a few communications difficulties so I don’t think I can. But I need to praise him for his many talents, abilities and accomplishments. He is brave, has conquered his sensory and noise issues, learned to vacuum the house, get a haircut, use a blow dryer, etc. There is something in him which says, “I am not going to let fear rule me.” I am trying to learn from him and use what I learn in my own life - he is my hero.
What is your Father’s Day message to all other dads out there – especially those in the autism community?
You are special and an important part of your family. Find other men you can talk with and have close friendships but look to men who are leading happy families. You can’t do it alone! Manhood isn’t independence, it’s proper friendships and proper relationships with those you love and respect. I can’t force religion upon anyone, but it is learning to love yourself properly so you can love and care for your family. Stay balanced and keep your pitcher full so you can give water to others. Love is loving others not using others as an extension of loving yourself. Find what Is true and noble and stick with that.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.