June 29, 2011
By Robert Naseef, Ph.D.
Film director Charles Jones was speechless with excitement when he held his son for the first time. He put his feelings into words in his YouTube video Autistic Like Me, which is a teaser for a documentary in production.
“When he arrived, I had a son, a miniature version of me. I had someone to whom I could impart my values. For a father, a son is a mirror in which he sees himself, and I couldn’t wait to watch him grow. I would teach him everything I knew in order that one day he would be a better version of me.” As I watched the video, I reflected on how I also wanted to be a better version of my father when I held my son Tariq for the first time 31 years ago.
Two and a half years later, the mirror broke for Charles when his son Malik was diagnosed with autism. “It was like a rebirth, only this time I was devastated…I felt guilt, shame, hurt and, most of all, cheated. Why me? Why Malik?”
For Charles and other fathers, especially those with boys on the autism spectrum, the “broken mirror” leaves us powerless and ashamed. We love our children and don’t want to fail them. These feelings generally occur with men, as described by psychologist David Wexler in his book Men in Therapy. Autistic Like Me resonates with the fathers who have watched the video with me at conferences around the country and in my office in Philadelphia. Hearing from Charles has helped open up powerful and liberating conversations.
When it comes to emotions, there is a male imperative to “suck it up.” Expressing tender feelings is traditionally seen as weak. So, men tend to cry on the inside, as my father told me he learned in the orphanage where he grew up. On the outside, we may be grumpy and irritable, but on the inside we are hurting. Life doesn’t stand still and wait for us. Our families need us to express ourselves, and to show up and be present day by day.
Since expressing vulnerable feelings violates unwritten and unspoken male gender codes, asking a male how he feels evokes an automatic “I don’t know” response, resulting in frustration and distance for his partner. So, what helps men to express themselves, especially when they experience a broken mirror when living with an autistic child?
What I have found in my work with parents of children with autism is that men can begin to learn to express themselves in groups of men or even in one-on-one conversations with other men who have a similar experience. Without the fear of performing poorly or being “wrong,” there is a sense of safety from shame. When this happens, men can then begin to express themselves with women. This happens over and over at conferences and in my office.
Don’t start by asking a man how he feels. Use these openers to get him talking:
- Tell me your story.
- What’s it like for you? (curiosity works better than empathy)
- Tell me more.
- I need to know how to be your friend/ wife/ brother, etc.
- Your child needs you.
- It takes courage to open up, and I admire you for that.
- Let’s figure out a plan to go forward.
Listening and disclosing needs to happen more slowly for men as we are more easily overwhelmed by tender emotions. Living day by day, this is how I grow and help others.
On Thursday, July 7, Robert Naseef, Ph.D., will be chairing a panel discussion, Fatherhood Forum: A Panel Discussing the Special Contributions and Needs of Fathers at the Autism Society’s 42nd National Conference with Stephen M. Shore, Ed.D., Alexander Plank, Don White, Ven Sequenzia, Diane Adreon, Ed.D., Kent Potter, Craig Gibson and Charles Jones.
Learn more about Dr. Naseef’s psychology practice at www.alternativechoices.com and check out a recent interview about fathers and autism here.
Topics:Living with Autism
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