My Perfectly Imperfect Roller Coaster Ride
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.
Eventually, JP began "mainstream" education, which felt like merging onto a freeway in a go-cart. In addition to finding the most effective learning method for his unique mind, grade school came with the constant drumbeat of birthday parties to which our child was not invited. When his own birthdays arrived, he cleverly concocted an array of imaginary friends personified by his stuffed animals and seated them around his birthday table.
One particularly exhilarating peak was JP's bar mitzvah. This Jewish coming-of-age ceremony entails leading a reading from the Torah and giving a speech about what you've read. As his special day approached, I wallowed in what could go wrong. Would he freeze up? Freak out in front of the congregation? Or bolt away?
However, transcending doubt and challenges, JP was undaunted and rose to the occasion, thanks to his remarkable memory and naturally resourceful qualities. Upon completion of his speech, JP moved into the crowd and hugged everyone in sight. He was working the room, and the bloom of love was palpable. As a proud father riding high, I knew JP would go forth to become who he was meant to be.
Most fathers experience the highs and lows and inherent risks involved with raising their teenage sons, yet those feelings are heightened when autism is in play. JP is atypical on the spectrum in that he fearlessly craves connections with people. He's a hugger in an era when hugging is not always welcome, and we felt constantly jolted by calls from school administrators regarding JP's tendency to hug too much.
Can you really hug too much? Is it possible to have too much empathy? In his situation, the answer is sometimes yes. His heightened generosity and craving for connection make him vulnerable to trickery or even robbery. Not everyone out there can match his empathy! And, that alone can be a blessing and a curse.
This Father's Day certainly feels like the smoothest and most rewarding part of the ride so far. JP has his own apartment, thrives in his job, pays his bills, and has evolved from the days of eating only noodles and hot dogs to becoming a culinary enthusiast with an unlimited desire to experiment. He is an aspiring mixologist, craving the physicality of the job and the automatic opportunity to interact with people.Although my son has become a thriving and independent man, not every father's roller coaster has stopped jolting. And there are still plenty of discombobulated days. I feel deep love and kinship for other fathers who are still going through this wild ride, and I honor their unique situations and the degree to which they have accepted their own realities without judgment. Peer fathers I have spoken with over the years feel the experience has made them more introspective and more empathetic for the perfectly imperfect collection of realities.
Miracles are simply illusions. JP's success has emerged from a twenty-two-year full-court press of trial and error, love and management, learning and unlearning. Our mutual imperfections are part of what binds us, feeling safely delivered from the wild ride so far. As a father, I am both fearful of letting go and proud that I am able to do so. Recently, JP was able to rent a car and drive himself two hours to the beach and back. At his age, I can recall feeling that same wind in my hair, seeing nothing but a horizon of freedom, joy, and accomplishment, singing a tune we now share, "On the Road Again" by Canned Heat.
At the moment, I feel a perfect blend of fear, pride, and love for the kind, imaginative, resourceful, handsome, and capable man my son has become.