Teenagers with autism need life skills and job training. Life Skills & Life Lessons: Autism Dad 3 is a personal memoir told with humor and grace that looks at the unique challenges facing special-needs children transitioning into young adulthood. This collection of essays not only details a father’s take on raising a special-needs child, but tells the story of a family shaped by the everyday challenges and rewards of raising a child with autism.
* What Causes Autism And Can It Be Prevented?
* Teething Pain Is Only The Beginning
* Autism And The Art Of Toilet Seats
* Help Wanted: Employers With Open Hearts And Minds
* Celebrity Autism Insults Real People Struggling With ASD
* Precocious Pre-Teen And Racy TV Ads Yield Parental Torment
Autism Dad 3: Life Skills and Life Lessons ISBN-13: 978-1983499593 ISBN-10: 1983499595 $10.99 print/$3.99 digital
My nine-year-old daughter got invited to spend a week with her cousins at their lake house in New Hampshire. It’s been in the planning stages for weeks, and she’s got everything worked out. She knows what outfits to pack, which shampoos to bring, and which stuffed animals will make the trip with her. She’ll be under the watchful eye of my brother and sister-in-law the entire time. She’s going to have a blast, the time of her life.
But I don’t want her to go.
“Look, Dad, you have to be reasonable,” my daughter says, her expression so serious, she looks 19 instead of nine. “I’ve been to sleepovers before. And I spent the whole week with my cousins when we were at the shore. I’ll be fine!”
She’s done two sleepovers. The first was a Girl Scouts campout at a park across the street from our house. I spent all day — and most of the night — staring out the window, wondering if she was okay. The second was a slumber party at a friend’s house. She was fine both nights.
But I wasn’t.
Our house feels strange when a family member is missing at lights out. I feel the same when my wife spends the night away. (A rare occurrence — the only times I recall her being gone overnight were when her Mom was dying, and when she was in the hospital following her stroke.) Our home doesn’t feel right — doesn’t feel like our home — if the entire family isn’t present and accounted for.
I know I’m fighting a battle that’s already lost. My daughter has her mother’s support.
“It’ll be good for her to get out of the house for a week. And she’ll be with family,” my wife says. “You know the old saying: ‘The best thing you can do for your kids is give them roots, and give them wings.’”
“Wings suck,” I say. “She’s only nine. Too young to fly.”
“Didn’t you have sleepovers at her age? Didn’t you spend vacation with your cousins?”
Yes, I had sleepovers, and vacations away from my parents at her age. I remember having fun. But what I remember most is the feeling of freedom and independence. I was a big boy. I didn’t need my parents so much anymore. I could take care of myself. I had my own life, and they had theirs.
It was the start of a detachment from my parents, my first stumbling steps toward adolescence.
I don’t want my daughter to detach from my wife and I. I don’t want her to taste freedom. I want to stop it, squelch it. I want to stunt her growth. I want to seal my wife and kids up in a bell jar, freeze time so none of us gets any older.
Like I said, I’m fighting a losing battle. But this isn’t about being an overprotective father, or a visit to my brother’s lake house.
I fear my daughter is growing up too fast (Well, too fast for me — too slow for her.) Before I know it, she won’t be lecturing me like a 19-year-old, she’ll be a 19-year-old, wings fully spread, and she’ll be able to fly wherever she wants.
I’ve seen my daughter’s wings. They are beautiful, powerful, colorful, and strong. I know they will carry her far in life.
But I’m also afraid that someday they’ll carry her away from me.
It didn’t matter what the act was. Tickets were cheap in the 1980s: $15-$20; maybe $27.50 for fancy seats.
One week in the mid-80s I saw REO Speedwagon on a Monday night, and KISS that Thursday. I was at an Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica show where the crowd ripped open the seats and tossed seat cushions around the arena until a swirling cloud of cushions hovered over the arena floor. I thought there was a fire when Rage Against the Machine played the Lollapalooza Festival in 1993, but it wasn’t smoke; it was the mosh pit kicking up dry dust in front of the stage. A decade earlier Brian Johnson walked down our aisle with Angus Young on his shoulders during an AC/DC concert at the Brendon Byrne area. It really impressed my girlfriend at the time.
Back in the day, the Brendan Byrne Arena and Giants Stadium were the main concert venues for big touring acts. Both venues are still around but they’ve sold their names for corporate sponsorship; they’re the Izod Center and Metlife Stadium now.
Even though I haven’t been to a big rock concert in over a decade, I was happy to take my 10-year-old daughter and her friend to see One Direction at Metlife Stadium recently. Live music is awesome and I was eager to indoctrinate my daughter into the rock concert experience.
1D For Me
Making our way into Metlife Stadium I noticed a trend; it seemed most parents were waiting in the parking lot, tailgating, while their kids went into the concert. Not me. I was there for the music, man! Plus, my daughter’s only 10, I wasn’t going to send her and her friend into Metlife Stadium by themselves.
One Direction played a fine set, though the emphasis seemed to be more on explosions, fireworks, streamers and balloons rather than the music. During the power ballad everybody held up the flashlight app on their cell phones and waved them back and forth. I wondered what happened to all the cigarette lighters, but then I realized that nobody smokes anymore, and lighters are dangerous.
The One Direction concert came off a bit impersonal, but I can’t blame the band. They’re just following a trend that began years ago, back when I was still a regular concertgoer.
Giant video screens have been around at rock concerts since the early ‘80s, and while it’s supposed to make big stadium shows feel cozy, instead they reduce live performance to a TV show. Why watch the little man with the guitar from 200 yards away when you can watch the video screen and get a close-up? Why even go to a live concert at all when you can watch the same video footage from the comfort of your home?
Before the use of big video screens, bands used stage effects that enhanced the music rather than distract from it. From the mid-‘60s and into the ‘70s rock bands had liquid light shows or psychedelic light shows projected behind them while they played. The swirling, colorful amoeba shapes were eventually replaced by elaborate lighting rigs that synched with the dynamics of the music. The Genesis light show was a selling point for their live performances well into the 1980s.
Lost In Techno Translation
But as technology advanced, an intimacy was lost in the concert going experience. Giant video screens simultaneously brought audiences closer to the performers and reduced them to characters on TV. During the One Direction concert I saw several fans recording the concert with their camera phones, but instead of focusing on the members of the band, they were recording the images on the giant video screens. Why?
One thing that hasn’t changed about modern concerts is the energy created when fans gather together to celebrate the music they enjoy. This is the core essence of the concert experience, the same blueprint as religious gatherings. I saw many Grateful Dead concerts over the years, and the atmosphere was very close to a church mass. There was the same sense of reverence, respect, ritual, and release.
And hopefully that will never change. Long live rock-n-roll!
“I need you to bring this dirty laundry down to the basement,” my wife said. “Move the stuff that’s in the washer to the dryer, and bring up the clean clothes that are down on the folding table.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, grabbing the laundry basket and heading down.
“And don’t forget to separate the colors from the whites!” my 7-year-old daughter shouted behind me.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said again, already at the bottom of the basement stairs.
“Daddy isn’t even listening to you,” I heard my daughter’s voice drift down through the floor vent.
“No. I don’t think he is,” my wife replied.
“On Spongebob, Plankton’s wife says that husbands never listen to their wives,” my daughter said.
“Well, you’ll find that with a lot of men, honey. They don’t always listen to their wives,” my wife said. “But eventually, they come to realize they should have listened more closely.”
Down in the basement my jaw dropped. How dare my wife give such advice to our daughter! I’m a pretty considerate husband and father – better than some (most) of the guys I know. But like any man – any person – I occasionally lose focus during conversations and/or forget things.
I could accuse my wife of being equally inattentive. How many times have I asked her not to leave her shoes in the middle of the floor? How many times have I asked her to uncap the empty water bottles before she tosses them into the recycle bin? How many times have I told her that the plug on her iPhone charger needs to point left —not right – in order for it to work? Sometimes I just don’t think she listens to me.
But the truth is we’re both listening to each other, we’re just hearing and retaining different types of information. Scientific studies have shown that men and women listen differently. Men primarily listen with the left side of their brains, while women use both sides. That doesn’t mean women are better listeners. It means men and women process the same information differently.
It’s unfair to paint all husbands — all men— as lousy listeners. Women are equally guilty. I flip the laundry, dump the dirty clothes in the washer, start it up, and head back upstairs to set my wife and daughter straight.
“You know, I can hear you through the floor vents!” I said when I reached the kitchen. “And I don’t think it’s right you’re teaching our daughter that all men are bad listeners. I listen to you!”
“Did you bring up the clean clothes?” my wife asked.
“Did you separate the colors from the whites?” my daughter followed.
I turned around to head back down to the basement… and tripped over my wife’s shoes in the middle of floor.
Colleges and universities were once hotbeds of creative ideas and free expression. Students used to question abuse, question authority. Today, students request “safe zones” so they can protest “offensive” Halloween costumes, and insensitive emails.
St. Louis University is one of several institutions of higher learning where designated safe spaces are a perceived necessity among minority and LGBT students. The SLU website reports:
“Homosexuality is an invisible diversity, both in its members and its supporters. The Safe Zone program helps to create a more accepting atmosphere on campus by providing visual statements of support and safe space. Many universities from Boston College, NYU, Georgetown, and Duke to Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Missouri have already implemented similar programs.”
But safe zones threaten free speech. Missouri journalists were twice barred from covering college protests, according to USNews.com. Safe zones also create complex new job responsibilities for college employees. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators are being asked to step in and resolve conflicts among students instead of letting young adults fight their own battles.
I attended Rutgers University in the mid-80s, and there was nothing safe about it. (Except possibly the sex. It was the height of the AIDS scare, so people used protection.) There were many LGBT students on campus. Everybody knew where LGBT students hung out, and if you wanted to hang out with them, nobody judged you.
For me, college was an unsafe zone. It was a place where I experimented, explored, and royally messed up. Hard partying landed me on academic probation after my first year, with a paltry 0.7 GPA.
That was when I learned to buckle down and take academics seriously. I learned the consequences of goofing off, and I took responsibility for my life choices. I still made time for tons of fun, but I learned to finish my schoolwork first.
And I did it well. By the time I graduated, I elevated my lowly 0.7 GPA to a respectable 3.0. It was hard work, but that’s the entire point. A good education should push you to your limits and beyond. If it’s easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The most valuable lesson I learned in college was a simple one. Hard work pays off.
You can’t cut corners. If you do something, do it well. I learned how to be a major-league screw-up in college. But I also learned I could produce quality work if I set my heart and mind to it.
The college experience should be about taking risks, some smart and calculated, others blindingly stupid. Safe zones, language police, and other safety nets of the “bubble-wrap generation” take that risk away. We live in a “bully culture,” where everyone is a victim, even if they merely find themselves in “an uncomfortable situation.”
But uncomfortable situations are an essential part of life! How can young adults (or any living thing) develop and grow without occasionally stepping outside the comfort zone, if only to help define where exactly the comfort zone lies? Comfort zones change with time, age, and experience.
All colleges and universities are “safe zones” — places where young people can experiment, fail, succeed, and find out who they truly are without the emotional or financial responsibility of a home or family. There are still plenty of worthy causes for college students to protest in this country. This generation needs a better one than hurt feelings.
Back in January 2013, my wife and I fostered a pregnant dog named Buttons.
Buttons was on the “kill list” at a shelter in West Virginia, but some kindly animal rescuers transported her to the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society in Bloomingdale, NJ. We agreed to foster Buttons, and find homes for her and her puppies. It was one of the most reward things my wife and I have ever done. Read all about it below, and check out our Buttons Had Puppies Blog.
Here’s the full story (well, the full backstory, anyway. The story of Buttons and her puppies continues to be written!)
Homeless, Pregnant, and Alone
Shortly after New Years, my wife and I learned the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society (BASS) took in a pregnant dog, named Buttons. My wife and I hadn’t actively volunteered at BASS in many years, but we told the group we could foster Buttons if “you’re really desperate and can’t find anyone else.”
The shelter called us two weeks later.
Buttons wass 25-pound Corgi/Beagle/Something mix that had the misfortune of finding herself in a high-kill animal shelter in West Virginia. Buttons arrived at our house January 22. She was very sweet, very pregnant, and barely more than a baby herself – she appeared to be a little over a year old.
A few days later, we took Buttons to Dr. Dawn Garro in Butler, NJ. She did an X-ray and predicted Buttons would have between eight and ten puppies. Whoa!
Eight Is Enough!
Buttons gave birth to eight puppies in the wee hours of Monday, February 4. My wife and I had a feeling the puppies were coming that night. Buttons seemed particularly tired and uncomfortable, and was spending a lot of time in her crate (which my daughter christened, “Button’s Place.”)
My wife and I bickered about something stupid that night because we were both nervous about the impending birth. It was the middle of night — what if something went wrong? Neither of us had any experience birthing puppies. We didn’t have any experience birthing anything except for our two kids, and then we were in a hospital with doctors and nurses around. We didn’t give birth on a blanket in the living room.
Fortunately, Buttons knew what to do. We heard a tiny yelp around 2 a.m., and when we checked the crate, Buttons was no longer alone. It looked like there was a tiny white mouse in there with her. The first pup was born.
It was almost 40 minutes before the next puppy arrived, but they came more frequently after that. The last puppy was born around 6 a.m. Buttons licked her pups clean, and got them each latched on and nursing. Sure, the birth experience was a bit messy and gross, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.
In fact, it was amazing. The way Buttons instinctively cared for her tiny, squeaky puppies was both feral and beautiful. Except for the birth of my own children, it was one of the most powerful and moving things I’d ever seen, and my wife seemed equally affected. This was life in its purest, most basic form.
A few days after the puppies were born, we noticed Buttons hiding something under our daughter’s bed. It was Bob Dylan! We put Bob back with the litter, but Buttons moved him again! Bob was the first puppy born, and the smallest of the litter, (Adele was the last and the biggest). Was Buttons kicking him out of the pack because he was the runt?
Later, Buttons carried Jimi Hendrix upstairs, and stashed him under my daughter’s bed! Dr. Garro said Buttons might be looking for a new nest for her pups, one that offered more privacy or warmth. We covered the crate with a blanket like a giant birdcage, and put a space heater nearby. Buttons seemed to like this. She didn’t try to move her babies again after that.
The puppies are flourishing. We recently took the whole litter (and Momma) for a vet visit, and Dr. Garro thought all the pups looked healthy, and were developing nicely.
“Buttons is doing a great job. So are the two of you,” Dr. Garro told my wife and I. ”The hard part is over.”
But I think the hardest part is yet to come. Four weeks from now the puppies will be old enough to leave our home, and move on to “forever homes.”
My wife and I have fostered and re-homed many dogs over the years, and it’s always hard saying goodbye. But these puppies have earned a special place in our hearts. How are we ever going to say goodbye? We love them!
[This is one of my wife’s favorites. Originally published in March 2002, and revised for Father’s Day 2013]
In honor of Father’s Day, June 16, I’d like to travel back to before I was Autism Dad, when I was just “a new dad.”
The moment my son was born, I realized I held the most precious gift in the world in my arms, a gift I was unworthy of, yet responsible for, nonetheless. I was in way over my head.
But I was eager to learn, and my son taught me a lot those first six weeks. Here’s how I saw it back in 2002:
Six weeks of fatherhood, and already I’m defining myself by the way my kid sees me. I am Thick, Hairy Arms that lift him up and down (which is different from Mom’s Soft, Smooth Arms). I am Smiling Moon Face with Glasses. I am Stinky Breath at 4 a.m. Beard Stubble Man. I am Waiter, Maid, Chauffeur, Personal Assistant, Wipe My Butt Guy.
Actually my wife is all of these things and more. I’m the Assistant Waiter, Assistant Maid, etc. But in the past six weeks I’ve gotten a good dose of fatherhood … and I like it!
Like any new job, everything’s fun and exciting right now. I’m sure there will be days ahead that won’t be so much fun. But after completing six weeks, I’d say fatherhood is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.
My son, Rocco, taught me many things in a short time. We already have much in common, like big meals and long naps. Rocco helped me rediscover the joy of life’s simple pleasures. A warm blanket is good. A wet bottom is bad. A big dog licking your face is startling at first … but funny!
Rocco taught me to appreciate sunrises, which I have seen more of in the last six weeks than in all of my 34 years prior. In fact, the whole sleep deprivation aspect of parenthood is something my wife and I severely underestimated. It’s brutal.
Most importantly, Rocco shared one of life’s great secrets with me. When I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, “Why am I here? What’s my purpose in the universe?” all I have to do is peek in his bassinet and go, “Oh. Yeah.”
It’s not that my life didn’t have meaning or significance before my son was born. It’s that everything up until now seems like practice. I have seen the future, and it wears a onesie. And when I cradle tomorrow in my arms, it feels as light as a feather.
The future has gotten heavier, and wears jeans, t-shirts, and beat up sneakers now. The future also wears pretty dresses and Hello Kitty hair bows (my daughter, Francesca, was born in 2003). The future is also getting hairy legs.
But I feel the same now as I did in 2002. My children continue to inspire me, and give my life meaning and purpose. Their wonder and devotion enriches every moment of every day. If anything, my love for my children has grown stronger, more intense, over the past 11 years.