Having met hundreds of families over the years, I am awestruck by the level of compassion that parents of children with special needs demonstrate every day of their lives. They seem to have this sixth sense — an ability to see the world through someone else’s lens. Perhaps it comes from working so hard to understand and accommodate the worldview of their own sons and daughters. Perhaps it develops because they experience a certain kinship with other special needs parents — many of whom they’ll never meet. Whatever the case may be, because of their experiences, they’ve learned how to meet people exactly where they are instead of imposing their own expectations or agendas on others. Isn’t that what compassion is all about?
While much research has been done about how autism impacts mothers, there is very little out there in terms of the impact on dads. One in 59 are diagnosed with autism, up about 15 percent from previous prevalence rates released by the Centers for Disease Control. So there’s an increasing number of fathers who have had to navigate the complex communication, social, and behavioral challenges their children may have. All the while, they’re also navigating the isolation and despair that come with having a child whose life has taken a different course than expected. It’s not easy, and it’s time for our community to try to see the world through their lens a bit so that we can demonstrate the same kind of compassion they model for the rest of us. Here are some direct quotes from Anderson Center for Autism dads which might give you a glimpse:
“Every aspect of our journey is different. At first it is shocking and very sad. Then, if you have the emotional wherewithal and support of family and friends, eventually you come out the other side. That doesn’t eliminate the sadness, though. The sadness lingers forever.”
“Many families end up feeling like prisoners in their own homes. Friends may stop inviting you because of your child. It can be so lonely.”
“You never stop processing your pain.”
And, perhaps because of the darker days, there seems to be a heightened appreciation for brightness as well:
“After we moved our son into full-time care, I went to a local business that we’d always gone to together, and the guy behind the counter said, ‘hey, where’s your son?’ and like a bolt of lightning, I was confronted with the fact that even though I felt like he had been my invisible child because he was present but didn’t interact, he was not invisible at all.”
“Our journey has made both our nuclear and extended families much more open-minded and non-judgemental of people with all kinds of differences.”
“Our son has glued us together, given us the gift of open-mindedness, and has made us better people.”
If you know a dad who is caring for someone with autism, be sure to check in with him on Father’s Day. Try to see the world through his lens this year, and give him a dose of the compassion he shares so readily every day. And for the dads out there who have children with special needs graduating this month, we applaud your kids and we applaud each one of you; we know that these milestones are far more meaningful than many may realize.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, located in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism.” Visit andersoncenterforautism.org to learn more.