The following was syndicated from Quora for the Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.
How has being a Parent of an Autistic child made you a better person?
It may well have been the arrogance of youth, or it may have been any number of other factors, but I attribute some very specific wisdom I’ve gained in the last decade to the birth and growth of my son, who is definitely autistic. From my son I learned several important parenting lessons:
1. Most Of Your Planned Traditions Are For You, Not For Your Kids
The first year we tried to take my son to a “Trunk or Treat” was an utter disaster. It was loud, filled with people, and the noise of the engines inflating the bounce house were even making me cringe. He was very unhappy. We left, upset and unhappy with him and the situation. Then we realized that we were celebrating Halloween how we wanted it, and not how he might have wanted it. Halloween isn’t an adult’s holiday (well, at least not if you’re bringing your kids along) but we were trying to make it about us. Recognizing the natural parental tendency towards vicarious living — and quashing it — has made both my wife and I much better parents.
2. Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged
There’s a quote that I really enjoy by Steven Pinker: “If you aren’t just brought up in your tribe but interact with other people either directly or vicariously, through journalism and literature, you see what life is like from other points of view and are less likely to demonize them or dehumanize others and more likely to empathize with them.”
As a teacher of gifted students who had very clear ideas about how I was going to parent, my son was a sharp rebuff to those ideas. Now I know why parents would allow children to “go out like that,” or why parents “let their !@#% children scream like that” or [insert judgmental comment here].” Parenting is never simple or easy. I used to think — as many parents-to-be do — that parenting has clear lines you can choose to never cross. Hah! Any parent learns the truth of this — parents of autistic children get it seared into their flesh.
3. All Accomplishments Are Noble
My son will learn most things later than other children, but he will learn them. Right now he’s struggling mightily to beat Super Mario 1, Level 1-2, with the Nintendo I got him. When he succeeds, there will be mighty cheers in the house fit to shake the foundations, and I don’t give a damn what the neighbors think. His accomplishments are no less great for him, and his struggles are no less real. Too many American parents measure their accomplishments on what other children and what other parents are doing.
My son will never catch the winning pass in the high school football game. He will, however, try 10 times harder and push 10 times longer to accomplish his goals than I ever could — and he will accomplish them. When he does, I’m going to make sure he gets just as much recognition as the high school wide receiver. Accomplishments are a function of effort, not skill — and screw anyone who says otherwise.
4. Society’s Expectations Are Insidious, Unfair, Judgmental, And Widespread
The number of times I’ve had to recognize that what I wanted for my son and what will happen for him didn’t mesh are probably in the hundreds. Being a parent of an autistic child makes you very aware of “how things are supposed to go” that you might otherwise never recognize. Family pictures are not a given. Some babysitters are idiotic in their knee-jerk avoidances. People who talk to my son loudly (which, incidentally, is probably the worst thing you can do to get compliance from an autistic child) with the best of intentions… the list goes on.
I’m lucky — I’m naturally, because of my intellect and upbringing, resistant to societal pressures. I’m not blind to them. I know your son is supposed to be just like ol’ dad, get into trouble, get into fights with friends, kiss girls, drive cars too fast, play on the football team, blah blah blah. I know that any kid who doesn’t do these things is likely to be looked on oddly, and my boy does none of them and probably never will. I also know none of these things actually matter. Society places importance on them, but you can choose whether or not they are important to you. Having the courage to make your own value judgments is, in my opinion, what truly makes the man or woman.
I’m a far wiser person for the existence of my autistic son. Any set of new experiences will make you wiser. Autism is a long set of challenges, but there’s a great deal of wisdom to be learned, a great deal of beauty to be seen, and a great deal of love to be experienced. I used to be terrified of having a “handicapped” son, and now it’s my reality. You know what? My life goes on.
And so will his. And it will kick ass.
Jesse Fletcher has 2 children, one on “the spectrum.” Also teaches GT children all day long. Read more from Quora below: