[Note: This post is written specifically for autism dads who are not the daytime caregiver, but it also may be useful for moms in similar circumstances, grandparents and anyone else who is trying to bond and relate with an autistic child.]
I want to acknowledge autism dads and other men who love a woman with an autistic child. I am so appreciative of your willingness to learn about these children and the important role you have in their lives.
Being a father always has its challenges, but being the man in an autistic child’s life can be much more difficult. Having worked with many men with children on the spectrum, I know these difficulties and the confusion they can cause quite well.
One of my team members who is on the spectrum, Austin Searcy, describes an experience he had with his father that represents so many stories I’ve heard before:
“When I was about 10 years old, I remember my dad would come home in the evenings and everyone would be so excited to see him. My mom and sister would run up and hug him. I did the opposite. I ran to my room.
It’s not that I wasn’t excited. I loved my dad, but I just couldn’t handle all the commotion. I would sit and wait for him in my room, hoping he would come and build Legos with me. He usually didn’t come. And if he did, he didn’t spend much time with me.
I didn’t want to avoid my dad. I just wanted a peaceful one-on-one connection with him. Now as a man myself, I know my dad wanted this connection too, but because of my actions he thought I wanted nothing to do with him.”
If you can relate to this story, you may understand how challenging it was for both Austin and his father. They both loved each other and wanted to connect, but simple misunderstandings got in their way.
My good friend, Cliff Burnett, is an expert at helping men form strong relationships with children on the spectrum. He has provided me with three potential points of confusion and solutions that may help you as a man bond and relate with the autistic child in your life.
3 Points of Potential Confusion Between Men and Autistic Children
1. Why is it that the child only seems to want to be with their mother?
“The only person she seems comfortable having a relationship with is mom. There just doesn’t seem to be any space for me. When I try to interact with her she often becomes anxious and agitated. It just seems easier on everyone if I leave her alone.” – Autism Dad
It is natural for the child to be closest to the person they spend the most time with (often mom), but that does not mean that they don’t want the balance that a male figure provides. Often times this balance comes in the form of giving an overwhelmed mom a hand. If the child sees you doing this enough, it’ll go a long way toward building trust and security with them. You’ll also have a happier mom, so it can be a wonderful win for everyone. 🙂
Start by asking mom what you can do to help out. Everyone in this scenario is likely overwhelmed and can use as much assistance as they can get. Anything that you can do to support mom will remove some anxiety and tension in the household and with the child.
There may be times when you’re putting in all of the effort you can muster and still feel like you are not making any headway in becoming closer. Please be patient, because consistency is key to building trust with the child. Do your best to show respect and care for mom in front of the child. This will help the child feel safe and over time start to bond with you.
2. Why does the child often seem to be avoiding me?
“When I get home everyone is happy to see me. My wife and kids come to greet me but my child with autism does the opposite and goes to his bedroom.” – Autism Dad
If your child runs to their room when you get home, don’t take it personally. Children with autism are extremely sensitive. What you hear when everyone greets you might sound like a leaf blower to them. All of the commotion and excitement combined can overload their senses. It’s not unlikely for a child with autism to retreat to their room to seek refuge, just like Austin’s story in the introduction.
If you find yourself in this scenario, try taking a few minutes to calm yourself before approaching the child. The calmer you are, the more receptive the overwhelmed child will be to your presence. Consider taking a few deep breaths and thinking about your love for the child before gently greeting them.
The child might seem upset the first few times you approach them. Just as with the first point of confusion, consistency is key, so don’t stop trying. Gently demonstrate that you want to bond without being forceful or demanding any attention from them. Always be present and available for them to interact with you. This will help the child start to feel more safe and open.
3. Why won’t the child open up to me?
“She only seems to open up and have fun around a select group of people, and I’m normally not one of them. When I try and play with her, she seems distant.” – Autism Dad
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what emotions a child with autism is experiencing when you interact with them. They might not laugh and carry on when they’re having a good time, but over time you’ll learn the deeper meaning of the child’s responses and reactions.
To help the child open up, try doing an activity they love with them. It could be as simple as watching their favorite movie, or they might love building Legos, like Austin from our story. Whatever activity you do with the child, do your best to be present with a kind heart and an open mind. This is a great opportunity to help the child develop and learn to socialize with people other than mom.
All of the excitement from doing something they love could cause the child to become overwhelmed. If this happens, gently take a step back and give them some time to calm down. A warm, loving atmosphere will help them know you’re safe and want to connect.
Start working to connect with the child
As a man, you are in a position to make a profound difference in the life of the child, the mom and others involved in caregiving. Know that you have a unique opportunity to help and connect with an amazing child who may just capture your heart (if they haven’t already)!
Over time, the child will see the effort you’re putting into building a relationship with them and reciprocate in their own way. They’ll start reaching out to you and the connection will begin to flow naturally. I expand more on these thoughts in my free eBook, Autism Simplified for Parents. It’s a quick and easy read with tons of useful, actionable information that will make your parenting life easier.
Please let me know other questions you may have about how to bond and relate to an autistic child and we’ll be happy to address these in future posts.