What an interesting journey this has been, and it has only just begun, some 14 years ago, that is. 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? How will my son's growth trajectory 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. As I learned more about the autism spectrum and about fatherhood, 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, and that should be good enough. My autism profile will not affect my son. Rather, the totality of who I am will inevitably have an impact on him, and in a positive way, because I love him and have what I feel are his best interests at heart. Likewise, my son will no doubt have a profound impact on me, as it should be. Lastly, I cannot be bothered my society's expectations. I need to prioritize being myself 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 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 her of 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.
- Striking 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 and to commit to self-improvement.
- 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.
- Exercise empathy toward your child and teach him to do so: 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 his world, participate in it and learn from it. The more you practice empathy toward your child, the easier it will be to teach your child to do so toward you and others.
- Small steps forward: Incremental growth over longer periods of time is how most growth occurs because it is the more realistic way to grow vs. doing so by leaps and bounds. As such, hold realistic expectations of yourself as a father 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 as if they are monumental accomplishments.
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. 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.