On Fathers of Children with Special Needs

Father’s Day is a day to honor those men in our lives who have raised us, nurtured us, guided us. Being a father, or a mother, is not always an easy task. Fathering a child with special needs might be even more challenging.

Here’s a special tribute to fathers of children with special needs.

In the story of Mimi and George, you read that George’s father was one that struggled with parenting a son with autism. He fought his own demons in the form of alcoholism.

Then, something unexpected happened.

An amazing man entered the family’s life and chose to marry Mimi and become father to her two boys, one of whom had autism!

At this point, George was living in a residential center out of town. Her first husband had died from conditions related to his drinking.

Mimi laughed when she told me that men she dated did not hesitate to give her advice on taking care of George and telling her what he needed, even though they had never met him.

Then Mimi met Carl. Their relationship began slowly and Carl reached the point where he wanted to meet George. He knew that Mimi did not want him to come around when George was home. In spite of that, one weekend he just went, uninvited, to the house when George was there. “Oh, George put on a show.” Mimi remembers. “He yelled, screamed, kicked, did everything.”   Carl apologized for just showing up and left.

Mimi was surprised to hear Carl’s voice when she answered the phone twenty minutes later. He began with, “Bet you thought you would never hear from me again!”  They resumed their dating and even began to go out with George when he was in town.  Their relationship continued to grow and they were eventually married.

It had been six years since John’s death and George was fourteen, still living out of town. Mimi said of Carl:

“He instinctively knew what to do. He’s the only man who never said he knew what to do for George…but he knew what to do for George. And he loved him…he loved both of my boys. I knew he loved me, but he loved my boys!”

Mimi, mother of a son with severe autism

James was around twelve, George around 13, and Carl had a son of his own. “After we got married, everyone who met them thought that George was his. That’s how close they were. If Carl went to the hardware store, George went with him.”

When George was about seventeen, Carl suggested that they bring George home to live with them. He thought that it would be good for him to learn about their values and be raised by them.  Bringing him home to live was a decision that Mimi has not regretted, even after Carl’s death.

Mimi realizes what a special man Carl was in choosing to be the father to George.

I met another amazing father who chose this path.

Jeff dated and married a single woman who had adopted a boy with special needs. At the time, Paul, was a toddler and had not yet been diagnosed with autism. Jeff and Paul’s mother, Marsha, have raised an amazing young man. Both made the choice to love and nurture this boy who had so many struggles.

I visited Jeff and Marsha several times when I was preparing my book. Their conversation bounced back and forth between them as they remembered moments of their life with Paul, both before and after his autism diagnosis. They laughed and joked over once painful stories of events that helped strengthen the bond between them. At times, I felt that they forgot I was even there, taping their words.

These were stories of fear, uncertainty, and meltdowns, but also of pride and hope. Their life is not perfect. Paul is still figuring out his place in an adult world as he tries different job experiences. But as a couple, Jeff and Marsha are truly a joy to be around as they share and express their love for their son.

Jeff talked about sports and learning to adjust his own expectations through the years when Paul was not interested in any sports. Then he spoke of the pain in mentoring Paul when, as a teen, he came to understand the realities of high school sports once he became interested in basketball.

He was just dead set he was going to go and be on tryouts for [the high school] basketball team. It’s one thing for us to adjust our expectations, but then, I was trying to tell him you’re not at that level…and he was really upset about it that night. I had to educate him that…those kids have been playing since they’re five-years-old. You haven’t been doing that.

Father of a son with autism

Jeff was quick to talk proudly about his son’s strengths, interests, and accomplishments. We were in their home when we met, and he left for a minute to bring a box of Paul’s treasures to share with me.

Jeff was also honest about his worries about who will make sure Paul is all right if something should happen to him and Marsha. He laughed as he said that he figures some family member will try to fix all the things that they feel Jeff and Marsha did wrong.

Of course, there are also the biological fathers who found themselves on path different than they expected.

One mother of an older teen daughter with autism told me:

I pretty much looked over at my husband in that doctor’s office when she was diagnosed, and I said, “Are you in or are you out? I need you. We have to do this together because I can’t do it by myself.” And he said, “We’re going to do it.” He is the best father to [our daughter] I could ever possibly want. Because of that, I thank God every day that I have him because I can’t do it by myself.

Mother of a daughter with autism (From Conversations About Autism:Real-Life Experiences of Struggle, Acceptance, and Hope

And then there’s mother who explained about all of the legal avenues her husband had to pursue to get their adult son what he has needed through the years.

Like even to try to get him into the school. There’s a big list of things that we’ve had to do through the years.  We had to fight to get him into his school that we wanted to get him into…to begin with. So, we got a lawyer involved in that…and we got him in there. Well, then we had to fight to get him into the day program even though he was on the list. You just have to fight for everything that you have and I feel bad because my husband’s more involved in the legal end of stuff than I am but if you don’t have the resources or if you’re a single parent, I don’t know how they do it.

Mother of a son with severe autism

There are other fathers who spoke with me. Other mothers who shared stories of their husbands. All wonderful stories. All wonderful people.

Here’s to all fathers of children with special needs. Happy Father’s Day!

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