That’s the question I set out to answer when I met with some of the dads who participate in our parent support group. I also invited those on our email group to send in their responses. The children represented varied in age from 3 to 14 and it had been anywhere from a year to more than a dozen years since our dads had gotten the diagnosis.
Can you describe how you felt when you learned that your child had autism? Was this similar or different than how your wife reacted?
I asked the dads how they felt about the news. Some said that they were confused and overwhelmed by it while others expressed relief at knowing what they were dealing with so that they could move forward. One dad told me, “I didn’t know what to think at first. I didn’t think it was such a big deal because I didn’t know much about autism. My wife knew more about it and she was upset. I just wanted to figure it out and do something about it.”
One of our dads who is the stay-at-home parent in his family shared that early on, he wasn’t concerned about his child’s language delay. “I figured we were just two guys and that less conversation was normal.” They initially got a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder before the autism diagnosis. Parents often say they wish kids came with an instruction booklet. He used the analogy of first being given an instruction manual in a foreign language, learning the language and then realizing they’d learned the wrong language.
Some dads said they weren’t as upset as their wives about the news, but others said they did find the news emotionally challenging.
Moms often report feeling that they did or didn’t do something that might have caused their child’s autism. Did you ever feel that way?
None of our dads said they felt responsible in any way for the diagnosis and agreed that moms likely feel that way because of pregnancy.
How has autism affected your relationships with family and friends?
Most dads told us that family members were understanding and supportive. Relationships with friends were affected more; some friends were lost simply because there didn’t seem to be much in common when the natural progress of their friend’s typically-developing child surpassed their child’s. “No matter how hard they try, parents who don’t have a child with special needs don’t get it’ said one dad. Another dad said he has a friend who truly tries to understand and that he appreciates that effort.
What are your experiences with your child when out in the community?
Our stay-at-home dad shared that he thinks he might have it easier than moms when in the community because people tend to cut him slack when he’s out with his child. He thinks it may because people have different expectations of him as a dad and said he has received comments that it’s noble that he has chosen to stay at home. Another shared that he often gets unsolicited advice on parenting his child particularly when he is acting out. Many agreed that it’s difficult when people stare or make rude comments.
Where do you find support?
Our dads cited their parents and siblings, other parents of kids with special needs and their spouses as their main sources of support. One dad stressed the importance of both mom and dad being on the same page and supporting each other. “Parenting our kids is all-consuming” he told us, and reminded parents to make time for each other. Support groups and family gatherings such as Autism Day at Jubilee Farm are places where dads said the entire family can feel at ease knowing that others “get it”. In addition, there is a great group of teens and parents called Teens Together where fun monthly gatherings are planned for kids with special needs and their parents and also ones just for parents to have a night out to have dinner, play pool, or see a movie.
If a dad who is new to the diagnosis asked you for advice, what would you offer?
- -Be patient with yourself, your spouse, your child. You don’t have to know/do everything all at once.
- -Be open-minded. Denial is a strong coping mechanism but it won’t help your child in the long run.
- -Let go of the “what ifs” and “might have beens”. Try to reframe what your life is with autism in the picture. There are definitely challenges, but there are also positives.
- -Pay attention to your marriage; talk about things other than the kids!
In summary, no grand conclusions can be drawn about the differences between moms and dads, but I know I appreciated hearing our dads’ perspective on how autism has affected their lives. I hope you have too. If you’re a dad of a child with autism, we’d love to hear from you. Use the comment section that follows to share your experience.