Article first published as Parenting a Child with Autism on Technorati.
Early this morning, at about 2:00 AM, my son climbed into bed with us. Unlike other mornings, I was aware of this because I was awake, though normally I don't notice him climbing into bed with us. There was no sound, no crying, just a quick jump, flip under the covers, and he was out like a light on my pillow.
Later this morning, as my son woke up earlier than usual, he started to dance around and play with the dog. After a few calls for him to get dressed, he looked into my eyes for a second and smiled, his giggle infectious and infuriating, as he doesn't do as I ask for the fourth time this morning. I help him on with his shirt, hand him his pants, and he gets dressed.
While I'm still trying to get ready for work myself, I savor the eye contact. That shining moment that acknowledges my son's affection for me, and his acceptance of me in his life. It's fleeting, because of my son's Autism. It's savored because I'm one of a handful of adults with whom he will share eye contact.
Parenting is a scary business. It's full of stress as you worry about how your child will grow up and impact the world. Some parents take it easy and just expect their children to do well. When they don't, they look for scapegoats for causes and blame the world (or at least their teachers). Other parents are the diligent type, dedicated to giving their children the best of everything so they will excel in the world and bring honor and glory to the family name. Either way, there is stress, and it's put some people off having children at all, let alone more than one.
Autism is also very scary, in that no one knows what causes it or how it impacts the child's learning. Children can range on the Spectrum from very low functional (highly autistic with low IQ) to very high functioning (often Aspergers, with high IQ and mild Autism), so advice from parenting doesn't work. Generalities can be given, but the devil is truly in the details as you as a parent work to find a way to connect with your child consistently.
Other parents don't really know what to say when you explain the head-butting, hand flapping behaviors as ways your child expresses his emotions. Many offer suggestions, help, criticisms, and even sympathy, but only you as a parent can really connect with your own child. Parents who are truly interested look for the rules you govern your child, and try to emulate them. Some parents in an educational or religious environment, will attempt to apply their own methods in contrast to yours, causing confusion and regression in some behaviors.
To be a parent of a child with Autism is to parent from day to day, looking for every possible sign of success, and expecting regression when it comes. Instead of focusing on long-term plans like financial success or brilliant educational or recreational accomplishments for your child, you look for a successful day without spilling food or drink on the floor on purpose, dumping the dog's water into his food bowl, or pulling out all the marshmallows from the cereal box.
To parent a child with Autism is to place all the anxious future planning of traditional parenting into your daily routine. Effort cannot be diluted with incidentals about which Ivy League schools you want your child to attend when you are still focused on their using utensils while eating. Athletic scholarships are the furthest from your mind while trying to teach your child the necessary hand-eye coordination to write his name. It's too much effort to think beyond the day, the daily successes, and looking after the little things while hoping beyond hope it's true that the big things will actually take care of themselves.
It's scary, not having a well-planned life. I'm the type that likes to have things planned out in sequence in order to provide a smooth transition between two states. With Autism, you don't have that luxury. Development depends to so many variables that having future plans beyond perhaps special things like vacations have too many variables to make a successful plan.
I've voiced some of these frustrations before, so why bring them up now? Well, I read Notes from a Dragon Mom in the New York Times this morning about a mother with a child who has Tay-Sachs, a genetic disorder that will slowly kill her infant child. I found myself identifying with her descriptions of a lot of things, though my son will not pass away because of Autism. But the same loss of concern about the future and focus on the day to day is vary similar to what I experience with my son on the Spectrum. I have the same disconnect between the son carrying that degree from Harvard she had, though for completely different reasons. My heart went out to her because I could, in some ways, to her situation. Dragon parents are amazing, and deserve the admiration of us all.
I'll never be a tiger dad, nor would I think of considering myself a dragon father. I'm just a father of a child with Autism. I see the bark of the tree, and perhaps the tree, but I can't afford to look at the forest because it's changing too drastically to be relevant to what I'm doing. But some times, in those strange moments when I connect with my son, I can see a bright, glorious wooded mountain that is just waiting to be discovered.