Health Magazine

Being a Good Dad to Kids on the Spectrum

By Gbollard @gbollard
Man with baby
One of the frustrating things about the fathers, particularly fathers of kids on the spectrum is that for various reasons, they're not always "engaged" in the family. Fathers are often used as the "bad cop" in parenting but many fathers go completely in the other direction, permitting anything and ultimately disengaging from their child's development. 

In this post, I want to look at the reasons why fathers don't engage, how you, the dad, can parent on your own terms and how to become an important part of your child's life. 

Why aren't fathers engaged?

Fatherhood today is very different to what it was like in the previous generation. As GenX, our parents were likely baby boomers or traditionalists. Fathers in our day didn't spend a lot of time on things like child-rearing. They were always too busy with work and chores. More importantly, fathers in previous generations were encouraged to bury their feelings and to toughen up. This has led to many issues dealing with "opening up" that confront today's generation of fathers. It's hard for the men of today to break with all those years of "training".
When babies are born, it's not uncommon for the mothers, grandmothers and grandmothers-in-law to overwhelm everything with feminine care. This is not a bad thing because babies need all the motherly love and attention that they can get but it can be a little daunting for dads -- and in some cases, it can disrupt the all important dad-baby bonding.
Taking things a little further, sometimes mothers become so possessive of baby that they won't let dad change nappies, nurse, settle or bottle feed. It's little wonder that in these cases, fathers start to opt out of their parenting duties (and eventually their relationship).
Duck and Ducklings
Overprotective mothers are particularly common in cases where the mother or child is on the autism spectrum. Babies and toddlers will sense their mother's reaction to others and if there's reluctance to part with baby, it can cause the baby to grow up seeing their father as a negative influence. I've heard of loving fathers who have done nothing wrong but who still can't touch their babies because their smell, voice or roughness of skin will cause the baby to cry until it is returned to its mother.
Sometimes other factors, such as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can have a similar effect. SPD can be lessened with exposure but unlike biological mothers who babies seem to instinctively accept (after nine months of getting used to sounds in the womb), fathers have to work very hard to get their babies to accept them.
Mothers frequently adopt more nurturing roles while fathers often have more focused interests such as sports and hobbies. This is particularly common in fathers who are on the autism spectrum themselves as their special interests can take over everything. These interests will compete with work, sleep and family time. Men who previously enjoyed plenty of sporting or hobby time need to either reduce their hours with their interests or reduce them with family. Unfortunately, many men choose the latter. This is not a good choice.
We all want to spend as much time as possible doing the things we love rather than the things we need to do but treating your child like a chore to be postponed is a recipe for disaster. in order to be a good dad, you need to start prioritising family needs over your personal wants.
Another common reason for dads not being engaged in their children's lives is the idea of being forced into negative roles. Mother who say to their kids "just you wait until your father gets home" are trying to use the fathers as a means of punishing their kids. While it's understandable that mothers often do not possess the strength to give our physical punishment to children, it's not acceptable to pass these things onto a partner -- particularly not a partner who wasn't there when the transgressions happened.
Being a Good Dad to Kids on the Spectrum

Good cop, bad cop?

Unlike mothers, dad's generally get to be automatic heroes. It's not fair but there are good reasons for this.  In general, it's usually the moms who stay at home to look after the kids in their early years. The moms are there for the tears and the firsts but also for the punishments.  Dads, particularly those with long commutes to work, tend to miss all that.
When fathers walk in the door at the end of the day, the kids are generally starved for attention. Mom has been with them all day and she is tired. Dad is like a shiny new toy coming out to play. It's little wonder that the kids are all over him or that they are forgiving of his general grumpiness, lateness or failure to say the right things at the right time.
To be fair, the parent who misses out on all of the day to day things because of work deserves a little time with the kids and it's important that the other parent gives them space to spend that time.  After all, there will be plenty of time for adult discussion once the kids are in bed.
Unfortunately, many moms use "dad" as a weapon and expect him to dole out the punishments. They'll shout at the kids and then when dad does nothing, they'll say "why am I always the bad cop?"
Being a Good Dad to Kids on the SpectrumThe answer is simple. The "bad cop" is the bad cop because that is who they choose to be. There doesn't need to be a good-cop / bad-cop relationship in the house. Joint positive discipline will work wonders. Always remember, discipline means  teaching -- not punishment.
Don't allow yourself to be pushed into a role. You need to choose how you want to motivate your kids based on what works for them and what works for you.  You also have to remember that eventually your kids will grow up and will start to copy your disciplinary behavior.  Do you want them to learn to react to issues with rules, rewards and sanctions or with violence and shouting?

How to become a part of your child's life

In order the be a good dad, you need to make sure that you're a part of your child's life. This means that you need to be both a dad and a friend. Sometimes you need to give work a back-seat to your kids. This means that if work prevents you from making it on time to special days, such as their concerts, special sporting days or IEP meetings, then you need to take those days as leave.
Sports and hobbies also need to take a bit of a back seat. It's great to keep up with them but unless they actively involve your kids (and the kids want to be there), they're an indulgence.
Being there for your kids means that you take time to play with them on the floor, that you get actively involved in their activities, for example; helping out with scouts (or even becoming a leader), helping with the sports teams (or even taking a manager or coach role).  It means reading books to your kids in bed and listening to them doing their reading. It also means to be fair with your kids and spend just as much time with your daughters as you do with your sons - and to not unnecessarily restrict activities by gender.
Being a Good Dad to Kids on the Spectrum
You also need to be human. Talk about your own childhood experiences and let your kids know about the times when you were naughty or disobedient. Talk about how you felt and any mistakes you may have made. Most of all, talk about how you made up for those things. If you give your kids something to relate to, they'll feel confident in approaching you with their problems.

What not to forget

I did talk about making work, sports and hobbies take a back-seat for the family but of course you can't simply drop these things. They're important. You still need to earn an income, you still need your space and you still need to pursue your interests.
You'll also need to ensure that you give your partner space and opportunities to do these things -- and that you give yourselves time to be together. It's a balancing act but it's one that will improve with time and effort. 

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