Greeting cards often convey Father’s Day as idyllic, but no parenting experience is perfect. Fathers raising children with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum live on a roller coaster ride that can evoke a fearful sense of running out of track or flying with no end in sight. Yet, there are plenty of moments that deliver intense exhilaration and joy that a greeting card can’t capture.
My experience of elated peaks and panicked nosedives, coupled with twists and turns, has yielded a soulful graduate degree of heart and mind and has made me a better father. For me, Father’s Day feels like another beginning of a new year, imbued with emotions of indelibly etched images, breathing hope into the future with my son, JP, who is now twenty-two years old.
The span of my first peak and trough of fatherhood covered my son’s birth until age two, which is when my wife and I saw that something was not quite right: his eye contact diminished, language was not developing, his body tended to get stiff, and uncontrollable anxiety manifested itself in screaming. We depended on the wish and belief that “this too will pass” while clueless doctors failed to help our son.
Around age three, we received the reality-bending gut-punch of a formal diagnosis just before Father’s Day, washing us in shock over what our future could hold. It was a moment of denial or acceptance that we will remember forever. Like most dads, I wanted to fix the problem, yet I also realized some problems are unfixable, despite my best efforts and devotion.
People with autism generally perceive the world as inherently unsafe, and many don’t want to be touched. For others, like JP, extra hugging and squeezing releases the hormone oxytocin in the body and provides the comfort and security of love. Many days I would snuggle with JP in our hammock, bring his cheek to my cheek, and whisper, “You are the best son that ever has been, the best there is now, and the best that ever will be.” JP did not have many words until around age five, but I know he understood me.