January 7, 2011. It was a snowy night in Richmond, Virginia. 75 fathers of children with autism turned out for a presentation entitled “The Father Factor.” They came ostensibly to hear me, introduced as a psychologist and the father of an adult child with autism, talk to them about the issues they face day and night in their families. They did more than listen.
First, they showed up, and that turnout said something. It said that their local chapter of the Autism Society (http://www.asacv.org/) recognizes the need for programming that speaks directly to fathers. It says that men respond when they are spoken to directly. It says that the mothers of their children found the presenter at a national conference, planned and organized the event, and encouraged them to attend.
After a brief talk about my background as a son and a father, I asked them to share their stories with each other in small groups around the tables at which they were seated. The energy level in the room rose as they connected with each other. In every small group, men commented on how alone they had felt and how much they enjoyed meeting each other. Many had never attended and Autism Society event in the past. Those who had been there mentioned that there were few if any men present so they just listened.
Then we watched together a short DVD, “Father’s Voices: A Journey of the Heart” which is a compelling video about men raising children with disabilities from the Washington State Fathers Network.(www.fathersnetwork.org ) The film focuses on four dads, including the father of a child with autism and how their lives have been dramatically changed because of their children.
Filled with the powerful message of the movie, the men opened up in their small groups about their own thoughts and feelings. I asked them to recall their sweetest memories of their own fathers and male role models which they carry with them. These insights were offered within the large group of all present.
Finally, we discussed how to apply what we knew about fatherhood from our own lives to the often overwhelming mission of raising a child on the autism spectrum. The discussion focused on how men remembered the time they spent one-on-one with their fathers doing simple things: chores, errands, baseball games, fishing, etc. Many had lost sight of what they could do with their children while overwhelmed in the world of therapies, special education, doctor visits, etc.
Even though they couldn’t fix the autism, there was a sense of hope that they could do something about their relationship with their child. After 2 hours of open and honest discussion, men lingered, talking and holding onto the moment. Several told Bradford Hulcher, the Executive Director of the Autism Society of Central Virginia, that they wanted her to set up an ongoing fathers’ group. She told them that they would need to step up themselves if they really wanted that to happen.
Today, I got an email from Bradford telling me that 4 men had stepped up to be organizers and leaders. That turnout really said a lot. There are plenty of good men in the autism community and not just in Richmond.