Any father-to-be will entertain visions of the type of child he wants to raise. He will ponder what he will teach his child, what values he wants to instill and how he will spend his time with his child. By the time his child is born the father may already have a certain scenario fixed in his mind.
Once the excitement of becoming a father has lulled, these preconceived notions will be further shaped as reality sets in and life unfolds, but nothing is more jarring than finding out that life with your child will not be as you expected due to a diagnosis of Autism and all the challenges that will follow.
Hearing the words, "Your child has Autism" is a shock that is difficult for anyone to immediately handle and everyone deals with it differently. This news will affect dads as well as moms, siblings, grandparents and other relatives, even friends & neighbors and everyone will eventually come to accept the child in their own way and at their own pace.
Therefore it is unrealistic to expect that husbands, wives and partners will be on the same page when it comes to accepting and dealing with an autism diagnosis for their child. Even though moms and dads need to go through the same phases towards acceptance, the journey for dads tends to take longer.
So, what do we know that will help us understand what this process is like for dads and what can we do to support them along this difficult path? (While there are no absolutes about men and the way they cope it is impossible to cover every possibility so please bear with these 'generalized' statements knowing they do not apply to all).
- What we know: Men have a hard time dealing with things they can't fix. Men take pride in their ability to solve problems and are almost always ready with solutions when a real or perceived problem is presented. Any dad is apt to feel powerless or inept when the usual: working harder or smarter isn't going to fix their child. When the dad comes face to face with a situation such as this, there is, unfortunately no simple ready-made solution that will allow them to resolve the challenges their child faces.
What we can do: With that in mind, try providing a dad with small problems to solve regarding his child. Even though men feel most effective when solving big problems, giving them little things to resolve that can be successfully accomplished will help them feel useful. Placing a dad in a role of trouble-shooter will make him less apt to feel powerless and will provide evidence to the fact that little things really do matter.
- What we know: Our culture has conditioned men to see anything that is out of the ordinary as a possible sign of weakness. Dads may struggle more with acceptance of a child with Autism because they may see it as a reflection of inadequacy: "If my child is not OK then I'm NOT OK." Anything that can be construed as a weakness has the potential to create dissonance within a dad and any real or perceived judgment from a peer can become another roadblock to overcome.
What we can do: This is the time to be patient with yourself and your spouse and for you to both focus on the positive and support and talk with one another concentrating on the strengths of all involved instead of pointing out the negatives which only have the power to create a downward spiral of doom and gloom. Taking the time every evening to identify the positives that have occurred during the day is a wonderful activity to keep your mindsets headed in the right direction.
- What we know: Be it genetic or societal conditioning we are familiar with the notion that women tend to reach out more for guidance and emotional support. Men on the other hand are less inclined to go this route and are not as forthcoming in expressing their deep-seated and when they do, it is often not done in the same manner as women. Male gatherings are less conducive to heartfelt talks about Autism and less likely that a dad is able to gain any real compassion or understanding from the listener.
What we can do: It is important to find ways to encourage fathers of children with Autism to discover avenues that will allow them to vent. This is hard for dads and they need help doing so but reaching out to other dads will help shatter these unspoken codes. Finding support groups for men in similar situations will be the best gift you can give any dad in this situation.
- What we know: We all like to appear knowledgeable in everything we do, but not even a genius can know everything. Supposedly, men don't like asking for directions and they don't like to read instruction manuals, but perhaps what is most difficult for them as a parent of a child on the Autism spectrum is not having the knowledge or experience to know that their child is not deliberately defying their authority or rejecting their affection.
What we can do: Find ways to feed information to a dad in bits and pieces. Giving a dad a book to read may not be greeted with much enthusiasm, but tactfully sharing things you have discovered will plant seeds and gradually create a curiosity that takes on a life of its own. Helping a parent get to know their child and understand the unique challenges that they face will make for a stronger connection which puts you one step closer towards acceptance.
It is times like these when it is important to remember that we are all given the children we are meant to have even though they may not be exactly what we hoped for when we first found out we were going to be parents. This means that we have to let go of our prior visions and focus on connecting with the wonderful gift we have before us. As we focus on the abilities our children do have, we then create the power to change possibilities and dream new dreams.