5 Lessons My Autistic Son Taught Me About Fatherhood

6 minute read

Moments after my son was diagnosed with autism, my wife confronted me in the doctor’s parking lot. “It’s time to step up,” Lori said. Be a better father. She told me to take a series of road trips with Tyler—to bond with our 12-year-old boy and teach him to navigate a world that isn’t wired like him.

Turns out, Tyler did the teaching.

I called them “guilt trips” and took my history-loving son to the White House and to presidential libraries and to homes across the country. He visited privately with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. I took notes and wrote a book, Love That Boy, and learned so much.

1. Don’t confuse your own happiness with your child’s.

My interviews with parents start with a basic question: “What expectations do you have for your children as they grow up?” The answer almost always begins with some variation of “All I want is for them to be happy.” But I wonder, do parents understand what happiness means?

One day, while driving away from Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop estate in Virginia, I asked Tyler whether he was happy as a little kid. “I’d say so,” he replied.

“Are you happy now?

“I’d say so,” he said. “My kind of happy.”

“But you don’t have many friends.”

“That’s the problem,” Tyler said. His tone was matter-of-fact, not accusatory or defensive. “You have a picture in your head of what makes a kid happy. But then you have a kid, and it doesn’t turn out that way. That just means your picture didn’t come true. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I have a different picture.”

“Are you happy in your picture?”

“Most of the time, yes,” he said. “Are you always happy in yours?”

“No, buddy. Not always.”

“Same with me.”

2. Don’t force things.

My inability to connect with Tyler wasn’t always due to a lack of trying. At times, I tried too hard. Like the day we toured Sagamore Hill, the home of Tyler’s favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt.

“He was sick and mostly alone as a kid but then grew up to be wildly popular,” I told Tyler. “Do you want to be popular, buddy? Do you want more friends?”

“That is not why he’s my favorite president,” Tyler replied. “He’s my favorite president because he kicked butt!”

“Do you want to kick butt, buddy? Roosevelt muscled up so he could fight bullies. Do you want to muscle up?”

“Dad, stop.” He tone was flat, firm—like a parent speaking to a child. Tyler said, “Remember the Freaks book?” Just 10 days ago, Tyler bought home from school a memoir of boy whose autism mirrored Tyler’s. In Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome, Luke Jackson urges parents not to force their kids to socialize.

“Remember the book?” Tyler repeated.

“I remember, buddy.”

“I’m happy by myself, Dad. You don’t have to force things so much.”

3. Manage your expectations.

A parent’s love is unconditional. A parent’s satisfaction comes with caveats. This is an important distinction: You love your kids no matter what, but you expect them to be something—smart or popular or successful, maybe a scholarship athlete who marries well and runs the family business.

These expectations often are older than the kids they define. For me, I expected my only son to be a jock. My beloved father and I shared a love of sports, and I didn’t know how to bond with Tyler if not through athletics. Actually, I never tried another approach—not until Tyler pressed me on a visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum: “Why do you make me play football, Dad?”

I didn’t have a good answer. So when we returned home from the trip, I shared the exchange with Lori, who suggested that I tell Tyler he could stop playing sports if he promised to exercise regularly and join an extracurricular club in school. After all, those were my justifications for pushing Tyler into sports: He needed exercise and companionship.

Tyler smiled and shook my hand. “You got a deal,” he said, then he grew quiet.

I asked, “What’s wrong?”

He said: “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as much if I stopped playing sports.”

4. Appreciate your child through the eyes of others.

While visiting the homestead of John and John Quincy Adams, the first father-son presidents, Tyler repeatedly corrected the park ranger and overwhelmed the poor guy with questions. The adults on the tour couldn’t get a word in edgewise until I gently admonished Tyler: “Give somebody else a chance speak, son.”

Later in the tour, a gray-haired women said, “What happened to that nice young fellow with all the smart questions?” She looked around. “Oh, there he is!” She pointed to Tyler and her eyes narrowed at me. “You didn’t tell him to shush, did you?”

I nodded. Blood rushed to my face as she turned to Tyler and said: “I love your curious mind.”

I learned right then to see Tyler as others see him. That nice young fellow with all the smart questions? That’s my boy. He’s funny and charming and sweet and blessed with extraordinary intellect that he’ll learn to harness—even if he does so in ways that defy my dreams for him. I need to learn to deal with those expectations.

5. Love your child for who he is, not who you want him to be.

I love my son—not despite of his autism, but because of it. What makes Tyler and other people with Asperger’s syndrome unique also makes them a model for the rest of us. Their hyper-literal mind-sets make honesty as much a part of their nature as breathing. While he has a hard time expressing empathy, Tyler may be one of the most caring people I know.

Their wiring tends to makes Aspies unusually bright, loyal, dependable, witty, tenacious with details and passionate about their interests.

I used to say I hope to be worthy of Tyler. Now I see that I should hope to be more like him.

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