On June 21st, we honor the amazing fathers in our life: the men who work hard every day to support and care for their families. For fathers who are parenting children with autism, there is not a clear roadmap to follow. Here are some tips that can help support dads in their parenting journey:
1. Understand your child’s behavior and identify ways to help them: When your son or daughter gets upset and presents disruptive or repetitive behaviors, try to understand the possible hidden reasons behind his or her actions. He or she may be trying to tell you that something is wrong. Look for clues. Think about all possible environmental factors that may be bothering your child such as sensory triggers or lack of sleep. These issues may be increasing your child’s stress level and causing them to present the disruptive behaviors. Identify different possible ways to calm your son or daughter such as toys, games, or any other object. Keep a “daddy journal” of the different triggers you notice that may bother your child and the concrete ways to help him or her feel more comfortable.
2. Live for the present: Don't look to the past or too far into the future. Appreciate each and every little accomplishment your child and family makes. Focus on the positive instead of the negative. Take the time every night with your spouse to identify one positive thing that happened that day. Appreciate even the smallest breakthroughs. Think about what you learned about yourself, your spouse and child(ren) on that particular day. Remember your son or daughter with autism needs a calming, supportive, and loving environment. Aim to create family memories and moments together. Even if it is cuddling on the couch and watching television for just a few minutes every night.
3. Pay attention to your marriage: Children with special needs can be a challenge on any marriage. Therefore, it is important to try and focus on keeping your marriage as strong as possible. Make time for each other, even if it is just a few minutes every night. Talk about things other than the kids. Make sure you are on the same page and support each other. Have an “us against the world” mentality. Schedule date night at least once a month. Work together to find ways to divide the parenting and home-based responsibilities. If your wife has more child care responsibilities, then try to give her time alone and away from the children, even if it is just letting her catch up on sleep. If she has gone alone to a doctor or therapy session with your child, focus on listening and asking questions about the appointment. Do not blame each other if something goes wrong. Schedule time per day or week to talk about child’s needs – every so often check in and ask questions such as “is this particular treatment helping or not helping our child?” Talk about how together you can learn from the situation and possibly prevent it from happening again. Remember, men and women cope with challenges very differently. Research has shown that mothers may present more emotions than fathers. Dads may focus more on finding ways to solve the problem. Focus on helping each other cope and celebrate the special moments together. In situations where your wife may have given up her career to stay home with your son or daughter, be as supportive as possible. Remember it may take a little while for her to deal with the huge lifestyle change.
4. Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, getting assistance from someone does not make you any less of a man or father. Three fathers in my dissertation study mentioned that they sought psychiatric care and prescription antidepressant medication when their child was diagnosed. They hoped this treatment would help them remain “mentally healthy”, be strong enough to advocate for their child’s needs, and focus on being the best husband. Focus on identifying your support system: emotional, social, informational and practical. It is important to have that one friend or family member to share your feelings, disappointments and victories. Search for online forums or in-person support groups for parents of children with autism. Who can you go to for information about decisions for your child? Who can you ask for help in emergency situations? Be open to the idea of possibly having to ask extended family members for financial help. Be open to others who are trying to help you.
Wishing you a very happy Father’s Day!!!
Dr. Frances Victory received her PhD in Developmental Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her thesis was titled, "Exploring the Role of Perceived Religiosity on Daily Life, Coping, and Parenting for Jewish Parents of Children with Autism." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org