What an interesting journey parenting has been, some 14 years now, and yet it has only just begun. Interesting, in part, because I became a father not yet knowing that I was autistic, and once I found out, my perspective on fatherhood changed rather dramatically. The diagnosis raised several questions and concerns. Will I be able to handle the responsibilities of parenthood going forward? How will my newly discovered autism profile affect my son? As he grows, how will my son’s needs affect me? Will I be able to live up to society’s expectations around being a good father and husband, considering that these expectations stem from an essentially neurotypical point of view?
Thankfully, it occurred to me to use my Asperger’s diagnosis as an incentive to educate myself both about autism and about parenting. As I learned more, my initial concerns gradually diminished and questions were answered. My frame of mind, that of both optimism and realism, was helpful in this regard. I will handle the responsibilities that lie before me as best I can. The totality of who I am, not merely my autism profile, will inevitably impact him just as all parents have an impact on their child. Because I love him and have what I feel are his best interests at heart, I believe my impact will be positive. Likewise, my son will no doubt have a profound impact on me, as he should. Lastly, I cannot be bothered by society’s expectations. I need to prioritize being myself and ensuring the well-being of my child over being preoccupied with what others may think of me.
It is from this outlook on fatherhood and on my sense of self that my hopes for other autistic parents are derived. Here are five principles which have guided me along this journey and which I believe are of great importance:
- Be who you are at all costs: Otherwise, your child will not get to know the real you. Don’t deny them that. By being true to yourself, you are setting a good example. Hiding who you are is a surefire recipe for discontent and you deserve better. All of this may be easier said than done, particularly if there are aspects of your behavior and personality with which you are not comfortable, though being who you are is nonetheless essential.
My autism profile is such that I am not afraid to let my personality quirks and idiosyncratic behaviors surface. These include strange tones of voice and body movements, which would probably attract negative attention if on display in public. Nonetheless, they are often on full display when I’m with my son. They are a part of who I am, so he should see them, and he does. I view this as teaching the importance of being who you are by example.
- Strike a balance between your needs and those of your child: In other words, how can you properly take care of somebody else if you don’t take care of yourself? Attending to your own needs is not a selfish act; it is a necessary act that is meant to ensure that you are able to attend to the needs of others. It is often easy for parental instincts to belittle the need for self-care, though try to fight this tendency for your child’s sake and yours. And seek help if you feel you could use it. Doing so is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of courage and strength to admit to yourself that some assistance would be beneficial.
- Look at mistakes and failure as opportunities for growth: This is the optimist in me, asserting itself loud and clear. As humans, we are born to fail and make mistakes, at least from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is what we do afterwards. Do we accept the reality that we will mess up and promise ourselves to learn what we can from our blunders or do we beat ourselves up and let our gaffes undermine self-esteem in this fashion? I choose the former path.
I have always tended to put up a defense when criticized. Because I know that this habit frustrates people whom I care about, I committed myself to working on reducing it rather than saying to myself, “this behavior is too difficult to improve,” surrendering to it and resorting to self-deprecation. Though I still get defensive sometimes, I am not doing it as often as I used to. It’s an ongoing effort, and one that is thankfully taking me in the proper direction.
- Exercise empathy toward your child and teach them to have empathy for others: The ability to see things from another’s point of view and to feel what others are feeling is invaluable. So many of society’s problems would either be alleviated or solved if greater empathy were to be practiced. It strengthens the bond between you and your child, enabling you to step into their world, participate in it, and learn from it. The more you practice empathy toward your child, the easier it will be for your child to learn how to practice empathy toward you and others.
Bear in mind that it is widely, and wrongly, believed that autistic individuals lack the capacity for empathy when in fact many autistics possess a very strong sense of it. This misconception stems from the fact that autistics often display empathy differently than neurotypical individuals. For example, not outwardly showing empathy in order to self-protect, particularly when their feelings of empathy are intense and run deep. Examine how you feel and show empathy for others and respect that your child may exercise empathy differently than you do.
- Small steps forward: Incremental growth over longer periods of time is how most growth occurs because it is more realistic rather than changing by leaps and bounds. Hold realistic expectations of yourself as a parent and of your child as your growth trajectories unfold. Inflated expectations often lead to disappointment or feelings of inadequacy, eroding self-esteem. It takes patience, and fortitude, to commit to this outlook, particularly when taking a few steps back may be necessary in order to move forward. All the more reason to celebrate small steps in the more desirable direction.
One day my son and I were shopping together at a local supermarket and he intuitively knew, without me needing to prompt him, to quickly move the cart to the side of the aisle in order to stay out of the way of other shoppers and let them by. This would probably be no big deal to most adults shopping with their child, but it was huge to me in that it showed awareness and consideration of others.
All the best to those autistic parents whom this piece is able to reach. Proceed along your journeys with wisdom and strength!
Sam Farmer is an autism spectrum community self-advocate, writer/author, public speaker and consultant for Floreo Technologies, a company that leverages virtual reality technology in teaching social, behavioral, communication and life skills for neurodiverse individuals. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos and podcasts, and presents at conferences and support groups, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life in the face of challenges and adversity. A Long Walk Down a Winding Road – Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens is his first book. To learn more, visit http://www.samfarmerauthor.com.