For the last two years, I have been immersing myself in the research on autism. One area of interest to me is what research can tell us about the role of fathers in raising children with autism. A few observations:
- Researchers tend to gloss over or totally ignore the contributions of dads. This is a big mistake. While a great deal of research has been done on moms, the same can’t be said for dads. This bias is rooted in a society that still equates parenting with mothering, even though gender roles are changing considerably.
- As researchers slowly show a greater inclination to examine dads, they are becoming more aware of the many ways in which all family members are interconnected. For instance, there have been numerous studies that examine stress and depression as they relate to mothers of children on the autism spectrum. Recent data shows stress and depression taking its toll on dads as well. To no one’s surprise, a couple’s ability to cope with stress is significantly related to marital satisfaction. In turn, satisfaction with one’s marriage impacts a dad’s relationship with his autistic child. And now, research is finally examining the critical importance of relationships involving siblings and extended families.
- In addition to doing wonders for mom’s mental health, fathers who are actively involved in raising their autistic child make a huge difference in their child’s development. For instance, studies show that autistic children’s ability to learn words and communicate is very much tied to the involvement of dads . To illustrate, I loved reading to Jimmy, and there were stories we knew by heart. Altering the words to the story and getting him to giggle was one of the things I enjoyed most. Over time, I could clearly see the difference I was making in Jimmy’s development – emotionally, educationally, and physically.
- Research shows that men and women tend to have different strengths, and take on different roles . As an example, I was much more apt to engage in physical, rough-and-tumble play with Jimmy. I used to constantly throw him high up in the air, so high that his head once bumped the ceiling. Also, I would carry him on my shoulders and behind my back, punch him playfully, and wrestle, both inside and outside. We spent hours walking, swinging on the swing set in our backyard and at the playground, creating our own obstacle course, and playing soccer. Something I began to notice is that all of this exercise helped Jimmy deal with his anxiety, and it had a calming effect on me as well. Perhaps most importantly, it was FUN for both of us. Regardless of the skills he was learning, this was our time together and we looked forward to it each day of the week.
- Certainly, the involvement of fathers is not all positive, nor is it necessarily easy for the family as a whole. When both parents take an active role in child care, studies indicate that conflict can result. For instance, my wife and I are very passionate. We both feel very strongly about the right and wrong way to raise a child. Fortunately, we are in agreement most of the time. When we are not, we have had to come up with strategies to find some common ground. I think the most difficult challenge was communicating while we were also dealing with the built-up sheer exhaustion of caring for our children, and particularly our son.
Regardless of a father’s experiences, we need to study it and learn from it. How can we help fathers, some of whom have more than one child on the spectrum, learn to cope better, get the support they absolutely need, and become more aware of the positive difference they are making? Dads of all races, cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and lifestyles need to be studied. Otherwise, we are missing out on all of their wonderful talents and insights.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my two daughters and wife as well as other friends of Jimmy are included throughout. It is a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published in the not too distant future.
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