When your child has special needs, so much of the discussion is about whether they can “handle” things. After all, that’s the most prevalent issue in most situations.
Maybe your kid has sensory issues, holding his or her ears during times of loud noises. It could be problems with energy or comprehension. There are meltdowns for strangers to see and impulsive screams to make heads turn. The questions about “handling” situations is usually all about things people think might prevent your child from living their best life.
My son, who is non-verbal and has autism, doesn’t concern himself much with the question of “handling” things. He’s cool with whatever. If he can’t sit through an event, it’s because he was dragged here, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of obligation. In many cases, his unhappiness with the event is shared by everyone else. He’s just the only one who can openly react the way we all want to.
Plus, to his credit, he’s usually so well-behaved that any question of his behavior beforehand leaves me feeling silly and kind of guitly for questioning it in the first place. My little man is cool as hell. He reminds us of that nine times out of ten.
The question about “handling” things was actually more about me. I’m the one who needed to find out if I could work with our situation early on. As his father, I was the first one that question was directed to, in my own brain, back when he was first diagnosed. As the word “autism” hit me, so did every single piece of self-doubt that ever existed. All of it was centered around my concerns with my own parenting ability.
I mean, autism? Come on. How could I raise a child with, what some people call “severe autism”? I was in my early 30s and still didn’t know how to properly iron clothes, for crying out loud. I still don’t. I run the iron over a pair of slacks and end up pressing some giant line through it. I turn them over, smooth out the bump, and iron again, only to cause another huge line. Before long, my jeans look like a marionette’s pants. I haven’t ironed in years.
Yet, this little boy was counting on me to help him navigate life and provide care for an undetermined amount of time? What would that even mean? In my mind, that meant I needed to learn what made him tick and understand everything about him. That was terrifying. I couldn’t even do that with his neurotypical sister. She did so many things that left my completely confused…and she has words. Everything inside me at the time said that this little boy was totally screwed.
This is where I could give some big speech about self-confidence being the key, but I can’t. It’s not the case. Raising my son right wasn’t something that happened because I knew for sure I could do it. I didn’t raise my son right because I developed self-confidence and believed in myself. Rather, I developed self-confidence and believed in myself once I realized I was raising my son right. That’s the order of how it happened. That’s the order that it’s still happening.
There were so many variables to factor in. Why did making a right turn with the car into a parking lot cause him to break down in hysterics? Why did he fall to the ground, pulling my hand, when I tried to walk him down certain aisles at the supermarket? Why did he spend the entire time at the play-gym pacing and clapping back and forth while staring out the front window from a side-eyed glance?
I thought to myself that I would never be able to raise him right until I figured out all these things. What made these things a part of his life? How could I be a good dad if I didn’t even know why he reacted to situations as he did?
Fast forward to today and I still don’t know. The only difference is that I realize it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know why. All I need to do is be there for him when they happen.
If he cries when the car turns into the parking lot, I wait and play music he likes until he calms down. If he falls to the floor at the supermarket, which rarely happens but is still an occasional problem, I just kneel next to him until he’s calm. If a play-gym has a giant distracting window in the main area, we stay out of the main area or the play-gym altogether.
We work around it. We work through it. The reasons why they happen don’t matter. The comfort I offer does.
Have I made all the right choices? No. But that’s not just in raising a child with special needs. That’s true for everything. I have regrets and issues, like everyone does. There are things I wish I could undo or refine. Ultimately, though, none of them are major and none of them would drastically alter our lives. I am proud of what I have done for both my kids and I’m proud of how they’ve grown. I’m proudest because I never dreamed that I would be able to be the father they deserve. I overcame that fear and exceeded my own expectations.
It’s not about where you come from or the examples you had. You don’t need to come from great parents to be a great parent. You don’t need to be rich to give your kids your world. You don’t need to know every reason behind everything they do in order to make their bad times better. You just need to love them and go into every situation with their best interests at heart.
That’s what I’ve been doing and things have gone great. Everyone is happy and my children, both on and off the spectrum, have been living their best lives. We all have. Our clothes are still wrinkled, but we still look great.