Special Needs Now

Father's Day Reflections From an Autism Dad

Ryan Mulligan—artist, former professor, community activist, and dad to Hobbs (a 4-year-old with autism) and Eliza (a neurotypical 2-year-old)—shares his thoughts on Father's Day, raising his kids, and what it's like to have a child with autism.

Ryan and Hobbs
Father's Day is usually a time for cheesy gifts (ties, coffee mugs, silly cards), golf, and all-about-dad outings. But when one of your children has special needs, being a dad means something different. It took my husband, Adam, a long time to talk about our son Liam's autism diagnosis. When he did, however, the resulting blog post was searing and beautiful. After reading Adam's writing, I realized that dads of kids with special needs don't need more ties and tchotchkes. What they need is a place and some space to share their perspectives on fatherhood.

Accordingly, for today's blog post, I asked my friend, Ryan Mulligan—artist, former professor, community activist, and dad to Hobbs (a 4-year-old with autism) and Eliza (a neurotypical 2-year-old)—to share his thoughts on Father's Day, raising his kids, and what it's like to have a child with autism. Here's what he wrote:

I don't generally think about Father's Day.

I'm still waiting for my son, Hobbs, to say "Dad."

The therapists and his teachers keep reminding us that he has about twenty sounds that come up and just because at age four he can only barely control a "Bye-Bye" after lots of prompting, it will come.

I know that the Father's Day card I will get will be signed by my wife, using her left hand, but I will put it in the drawer by the craft projects that really were made by his teachers with a few touches by my son.

The kind version of me says we are working hard, that he has great teachers; we have great insurance to give him his one-on-one therapy. I will be happy no matter what, provided he is loved and knows he is valued. The social PC version of me says that the world is getting better for little guys like Hobbs, that autism awareness is virtually everywhere.

But it isn't that easy.

Ryan and Hobbs 2

The jealous dad part of me struggles when I see little boys in the store talking to their dad as they pick out Star Wars toys together. I'm getting a little tired of having to help form my son's hands into the sign "Thank you" and repeat it to store clerks, who may or may not actually be looking by the time this exchange happens. I want to yell, "Just keep looking at him even if he isn't looking at you. Don't you understand we need the reinforcement!"

I struggle during the moments when a word actually falls out of my son's mouth and the person he says it to didn't just drop to the ground and cheer. I want to scream, "He just said 'hi' and you don't get how big that is!"; and, then I add some expletives in my mind. (The one good thing about having a nonverbal child is that he has yet to quote me when I swear. But, I would love for him to say "shit.")

But we are lucky. I know this.

Our son hugs us, snuggles with us, and is generally happy beyond belief. Yes, these past two weeks he has been banging his head on the floor about 200-300 times a day, but it seems to be getting better. And we survived a meltdown that lasted two hours, without screaming at each other. And our daughter is trying to help in her own special way with the head banging. She kisses her brother's forehead when he finally settles down, says: "Hobbsie, don't hurt my Hobbsie's head," and she reaches out to stop her big brother from flailing, unfazed by his violent spasms.

Hobbs and Ryan 3

Last night, my daughter pointed at the Temple Grandin movie, and said she wanted to watch it. I looked at my wife in disbelief. Does she know? She must know. I thought.

I have a feeling that in middle school my daughter will do a report about Temple Grandin, and in turn she'll help people realize her big brother is just 'different not less.' I know she will be there for him when we are gone, but I hope the burden is minimal.

So, I would be lying if I didn't say for Father's Day I'd like our son to stop banging his head until he wails. Or for our daughter to have someone she can really play with the way she wants to play with him.

I would be lying if I didn't say I want to hear him say, "Dad I love you," by next Father's Day.


My thanks for Ryan for being so honest here.

If you'd like to read other blogs written by dads of kids with special needs click these links: Stuart Duncan; Blogging Lily; Gingerheaded Dad; Lou's Land; Pucks and Puzzle Pieces; and, Another Autism Dad.

Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there. I wish you and yours a peaceful, joy-filled day, whatever that looks like in your house!

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton