April is Autism Awareness Month, which is a big deal to me. Most people know I have two wonderful kids. My daughter Zoe and my son Jaxon. What you may not know is that Jaxon has autism.
When he was one, my wife and I noticed something was off. He wasn’t doing things compared to other children his age, such as saying “Mommy” or “Daddy,” or maintaining eye contact. I shrugged it off as a phase. I said he would be a late-bloomer, just like I was. But my wife suspected that there was more to the story. When he was two, she found a specialist willing to test him to see if there was truth to what we believed. And sure enough, the results came back positive. He was diagnosed with autism.
It rocked my world because I had no idea how to handle the diagnosis. I got the son I wanted. I had all these notions of how to raise him. I was going to have the relationship I didn’t have with my dad. But I had to come to terms that I wasn’t going to raise Jaxon the way I hoped. I had to throw the notions out the window. However, I held on to the hope of having a better relationship with him than the fractured one with mine. That hasn’t changed.
Before and after the diagnosis, we knew we had to research everything possible with autism. We sought out various resources and developmental programs. We got tremendous support from family and friends. They encouraged us to press on to get Jaxon the help he deserves. Eventually, we learned of our county school’s Pre-K program that specializes in special needs. Jaxon is currently enrolled in the program. Before, he was nonverbal. Through his teacher’s work and us spurring him on, he is now speaking. He says simple things like “Hi,” “Mommy,” and “Daddy.” He can tell us what he does or doesn’t want. At the time of this posting, he will be moving to another class where they will reinforce current and teach new socialization skills.
We discovered an organization called Spectrum. It’s been around for twenty years. The group has meetings the first Thursday of each month. The group also hosts activities throughout the year. In addition to the group, we learned many other businesses hold activities for special needs families. For example, a local theater has a special Saturday morning showing of a family movie. We get the tickets at a discounted rate. And the kids can pretty much do what they want.
As a parent of an autistic child, I developed qualities and learned lessons to make Jaxon the best person possible. Autism comes with own set of challenges and every day provides an opportunity to learn something new about him and myself. Perhaps, the most valuable is love. I love my children, no matter what. And interacting with Jaxon has taught me to love unconditionally. Not just him, but everyone who is a part of my life. And it has taught me to give them grace and not be so hard on them. It’s teaching me to encourage them, whatever they’re going through.
The second is patience. Like I said, I rid myself of preconceived, unrealistic expectations I have for Jaxon. I learned to slow down my thoughts so I can communicate on his level. I must remember that he’s not going to understand everything, let alone get it right. And while I’m happy with progress, I understand he might regress. My son’s journey with autism is not the same as another’s. So I’m learning to adapt as he’s learning to stand on his own.
The third is building a backbone. My wife and I get dirty looks from complete strangers and other parents. They see Jaxon yelling and crying and are quick to judge, calling out his “bratty behavior.” They speak out of ignorance. We’re quicker to defend him and his condition. We realize to do so means we need to educate ourselves about the autism spectrum so we can educate others. It’s not to say we’re going to ram knowledge down the critics’ throats, but we want them to not be so dismissive of our daily interactions with him and all that entails.
Being a parent is a challenge, but provides an opportunity for growth. Raising Jaxon has changed how I approach fatherhood tenfold. With Jaxon comes a completely unique set of challenges in raising him. It takes research and seeking support. And through Jaxon, I learned things about myself that has helped me to become the best husband and father I can be.