This was originally a three-part blog written by Maisie Soetantyo
Autism, Boys and Men
Autism is now considered the most frequently occurring developmental disability in the United States; with one in eighty-eight children, and one in fifty-four boys, being diagnosed (Vacca, 2013). The higher incidence in boys is also seen in other types of learning disorders.
Because of its prevalence in boys, more researchers are now studying fathers’ perspectives on early intervention, parenting approach, education, stress level, communication style and future appraisal.
One of the most common concerns we hear from mothers of special needs children is that they wish their husbands were more involved in their child’s interventions. And we hear from fathers that they actually do want to be more involved!
However, many feel left behind in the therapeutic assignments and methodologies prescribed to their child by multiple professionals.
To add to this challenge, fathers are not usually present during therapies and team meetings and it is difficult to understand many of the objectives without seeing a demonstration from a therapist. Thus, mothers tend to take on the responsibility of day-to-day implementation of therapeutic goals. This discrepancy in parenting expectations is often a source of contention for couples trying to do their best to cope with the daily challenges of raising a child who is developmentally behind.
According to Kayfitz, Gragg, and Orr (2009), positive experiences from both parents are critical to reducing the overall stress level in raising a child with special needs.
So, what do fathers do best, and how do we encourage them to be more proactive in the day-to-day guiding process?
Fun and Games
Many Dads enjoy playing tag, being the tickle monster, throwing a ball around, building legos or watching TV with their kids after a long day at work. They do like a bit of chaos to release some energy after a stressful day of making work related decisions.
While all of this excitement is not always preferred by Moms, it is indeed an excellent opportunity for Dads to connect with their children at many different levels; emotionally, socially and physically. Fun and games are one of the best ways that Dads can be a therapeutic coach to their child.
In our clinic we often ask fathers to video record what they do after work with their children, and it can be any activity or opportunities. By doing, so we can slowly show fathers how to slow down and insert certain objectives to practice. We also encourage Dads to be themselves and include their child in what they enjoy doing during their leisure time.
We advise Moms to let their spouse figure out what works for him instead of criticizing his parenting ways. It’s okay for Dads to implement an objective in a slightly different way; in fact, for an individual with Autism who tends to be inflexible, it’s important to introduce a variety of ways to learn.
Let’s admit it, men and women think differently, especially around problem solving skills.
According to Heitler (2012), a Clinical Psychologist who has written many articles on the differences in men’s and women’s thinking and communication style, men love to generate solutions while women tend to explore relevant concerns. Men and women have different strengths and special needs children benefit greatly from sharing experiences with both parents!
Moms might be able to support dads by choosing the simplest step to begin with, keeping in mind that both father and child need to feel successful in order to try more novel activities.
For example, one of the fathers we worked with started taking his son with autism along while running errands he usually completed alone on weekends. Instead of taking his son out to run three errands in a row, he started with one stop followed by a trip to Chuck’s Donuts to create a positive memory. Gradually it would not matter where they went on weekends, because the time they spent together had become the most important and meaningful part.
Learning opportunities are embedded in small moments, and the more Dads spend time with their children, the more they are able to find these opportunities.
Setting Good Examples
To help Dads understand a current objective, Moms can provide real life examples by implementing the objective into day-to-day situations. Model a new objective as much as possible and only work on one objective at a time. Moms can ask for feedback or observations from their spouse, to make him feel included but not pressured.
In a Relationship Development Intervention (RDI®) program, we ask parents to record each other on video interacting with the child and to take the time as a couple to analyze each other’s videos.
Recording and looking back is a powerful way to learn from past mistakes and plan for better implementation of objectives in the future. In addition, we also try to include fathers as much as possible in team meetings, and ask for their observations of a current objective.
An RDI® consultant can also help to make a list of Dad’s potential activities to try at home.
Spotlighting Dad’s Competence
Praising our children for their competence has become second nature for us parents, and the same thing needs to happen between parents. Family lives are hectic enough, and at the end of the day it’s difficult to take the time to appreciate what we could not have done without the presence of our spouse.
In RDI® we say “competence builds motivation”, and if dads feel competent while spending quality time with their children, then they would be motivated to do more. One way we could do this of course, is to give them positive feedback in the moment.
We could also take pictures or make video clips for later review to help fathers remember how far they have come in contributing to their child’s remediation journey. We recommend parents to go back to earlier photos and video clips from time to time to appreciate how far the whole family has come.
In addition, during our team meetings, we often ask both parents to take turns using positive phrases such as “I notice that…” or “I am glad that ….” to spotlight each other’s progress.
Working Together as a Family
As a family in the RDI® program, you must work together to ensure that your child is learning, growing and heading toward independence. We are all going to make mistakes, and we’re all going to start out doing something new by not knowing what to do!
Our RDI® certified consultants can help you and your spouse to work together to create a nice balance for your family.
No one should bear the brunt, and no one should be left behind. With RDI®, your family can achieve its goals.