What an experience this has been! Fatherhood in this day and age is no easy undertaking regardless and who is or isn’t on the Spectrum. Take it up a notch when both father and son have Spectrum profiles. Without question, I am in the thick of the greatest challenge of my life, though the word challenge only tells part of the story. Extraordinary also comes to mind.
My son and I are who we are. When we were born, we were both dealt a deck of cards which we are playing as best we can. After many years of very hard work, I have come to accept who I am and have accepted that Asperger’s is a part of my identity. My son, soon to turn 10 years old, has known for some time that Autism is a part of who he is and for now at least, he accepts this reality. Nonetheless, I know that significant challenges lie ahead which will make it difficult at times for him to accept the Autistic aspect of his personality, and I stand ready to help see him through the inevitable trials and adversity. After all, I am in the privileged position of having already faced the Autism-specific challenges which I believe my son will face, and emerged as a survivor, stronger and smarter than before. As a result, I have lots of relevant wisdom to impart to him going forward. My greatest hopes for him as I share this wisdom include inner strength, a robust sense of self-esteem, and happiness. All of these go hand in hand, as I have discovered over the course of my life.
Fatherhood has transformed me in more ways than one. I am emotionally stronger, smarter, more flexible, less obsessive, less self-absorbed, more aware of my surroundings and more patient than at any time prior to the birth of my son. My son’s Spectrum profile demands that I do better in all of these regards, and I am doing better, but I am nowhere near where I want to be. To me, never being fully satisfied with where I am in terms of my efforts at self-improvement is core to being a good father. It keeps me growing in the right direction! Dealing with my son’s behavioral challenges demands epic levels of emotional strength so that I don’t lose it when he does. Flexibility is critical because I want to be able to model this habit for him so that he may gradually become more flexible. Self-absorption, which is at the heart of my Aspie profile, needs to be minimized because a good father should prioritize his child’s best interests over his own. Patience is required because my son needs the leeway for repeated trial and error in order to learn many of his lessons, and because he is relatively slow to respond to what is going on around him, it is unrealistic to expect him to comply with a request or with parental discipline immediately. So, I have my work cut out for me, and so does my son. As I develop as a father, he will develop as a person. I see much of myself in him, and I am hopeful that in time, he will see at least some of himself in me. As father and son on the Autism Spectrum, it truly is an extraordinary connection that we share.
To this day, I grapple with a phenomenon that stems from my Aspie profile which I call the “Bachelor State of Mind”. As a father and a husband, I fight it with everything I have though I can feel the influence that it exerts upon how I function in these roles. The Bachelor State of Mind tries to get me to think and make decisions as if I were still single and only responsible for myself, even though I am not. I am affected by it because I lived the better part of my life as a bachelor and because it is particularly difficult for me to break a habit that has become as embedded in me as this one has. Personal growth has been possible in spite of it, though I have been slower to progress than I would prefer because of it.
I have always tended to communicate verbally with other people. Verbal communication is not always what’s best when I am with my son. When I speak to him under circumstances whereby a non-verbal cue would be optimal, I am contending with the Bachelor State of Mind. When I succumb to the temptation of lying down on the couch when I am tired and when my son asks me to play with him, I fall prey to the Bachelor State of Mind because opportunities to play with him are relatively few and far between. When I manage to drag myself off the couch to do so, I call that progress.
The importance of independence, as an Aspie dad to a boy on the Autism Spectrum, cannot be overstated. I love my son more than words can express, though parenting him, on top of all of the other hats I must wear, requires a phenomenal amount of energy. I have found that the best way to avoid burning out and to recharge my batteries is to spend time away from my family, and thankfully my wife and son are OK with that. As a result, I get home late just about every day during the work week and take some weekend time for myself here and there. Doing so leaves time for pursuits that are important to me, whether that be staying on top of my work when I get particularly busy, meeting up with a friend, spending time on my Autism Spectrum community outreach mission (including writing blogs like this one), attending events that are of interest to me, etc. My capacity for parenting depends upon having this kind of independence.
Realistic expectations are critical to the role of a good father. Had I not learned to bring my expectations of my son and of myself down to Earth, both of us would be basket cases. If I expect too much of him, I set myself up to be let down and I set him up for failure and feelings of inadequacy, thereby compromising his self-esteem. If I expect too much of myself, then I start to feel overwhelmed and depressed. Instead, I choose to expect that learning lessons and personal growth happen in small, incremental steps over long periods of time. I do my best to pick my battles and bite my tongue when it is warranted. I expect that certain tasks will be performed incorrectly, maybe many times over, before they are performed with success. I expect occasional regressions when a goal is being pursued because sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take one or more steps forward. I tailor my expectations along these lines because they reflect my life experiences as an Aspie, they take into consideration that my son is also on the Spectrum and they leave ample room for me to be pleasantly surprised when an outcome turns out better than I had initially expected. What a great feeling it is when that happens!
Lastly, with respect to my son, I have learned how important it is to look at what to others would be relatively incidental steps forward as being no less than epic achievements. Doing so is a coping strategy and a means of maintaining happiness while engaged in the challenging work of being an Aspie father to a boy on the Autism Spectrum. I will never forget the day my son and I were grocery shopping together at a crowded supermarket and he says to me, on his own volition, “Daddy, we need to slow down and get out of the way, there are other people coming towards us”, after which he did exactly that. Probably not that many people would ever think that this occurrence would be worthy of becoming a long-term memory, granted that these words have likely been thought by many people many times over in congested venues. And yet, to me, it was extraordinary, despite it being just another random day at a supermarket. So, too, is the relationship between my son and his Dad!