Autism Parenting: 4 Secrets to Getting Dads More Involved

dad tucking in his son at bedtime“How can I increase my husband’s involvement?”

This is a question I get so often in my office, I thought I’d address it here. As I began writing on the topic, I decided I needed a male perspective. So this morning, as my husband Joe and I were sitting on our back porch drinking coffee and watching our son—who is autistic—swim in our pool, I picked his brain.

During our 19-year marriage we have made a lot of mistakes and learned a great deal. This was a conversation we couldn’t have had 10 years ago without arguing. We’re even writing a book about it.

There were four main pieces of advice that Joe and I came up with during our chat.

Understand the Dynamics of the Relationship

When I first asked Joe the question, “How can wives encourage their husbands to be more involved in day-to-day life with autism?” he came back with the question, “What is it they need to be involved with? What is the wife not happy with and why? If a husband is disengaged, there is a reason.”

All good points. It really comes down to considering the dynamics of the relationship. When one has a stronger personality than the other, it affects the relationship—for better and for worse. In our marriage, for example, I am the researcher, the doer, and the shaker. My husband is more of a thinker who sees the big picture but not so much the details. We spent too much time trying to make the other person more like ourselves. Once I realized that my strong personality and style of communicating was hindering his ability to get more engaged, we could change the dynamics.

Deal with Your Own Stuff

In order to survive as the parent of an autism-affected child (or as a parent in general, for that matter), dealing with one’s own “stuff” is crucial. Often, disengaged dads are either still grieving or can’t figure out where they fit in because of self-esteem issues, confidence struggles, or just plain sadness. Moms will complain, “He’s not doing enough!” when often they are frustrated because they aren’t taking time for self-care. I often use the example of filling your own cup so that you have something to give to others. When we don’t take the time we need to fill our own cups, we tend to take it out on the ones we love or break the proverbial empty cups over the heads of our loved ones.

Dads Need to Feel Like They Are Contributing

My husband admits that when our kids were little, he didn’t know how or in what way to contribute. I breastfed both babies and stayed home with our kids the first five years of their lives, so when he would come home from work tired and sit down to watch television, I would get resentful. To remedy this, we came up with a solution (with the help of a professional counselor). We decided that he would be in charge of baths and bedtime. For me, it meant I had time to do other things, such as go for a walk, or if it was one of those several-tantrum days for my son, I would help.

Joe had to hold up his part of the bargain by starting at a mutually decided-upon time, and I had to back off (i.e., not correct, instruct, or get mad if he did it differently than I did). It was a challenge for both of us, but it made a huge difference in Joe’s feeling more included and needed, and in my feeling that I wasn’t alone.

Joe also told me that men need a lot of encouragement, just like our kids. This, he said, is important because dads often feel helpless in a situation they can’t fix. When dads feel that what they’re bringing to their family has worth and value, they will do it more.

Look at Your Own Behavior and How It May Be Contributing

We get nowhere when we spend all of our time finger-pointing with someone with whom we are trying to work things out. Even when it is the other person’s behavior that seems to be contributing more to an unhealthy dynamic, there’s always something we could be doing differently ourselves. A moment that sticks out in my mind happened years ago when my husband and I were seeing a marriage counselor. I was complaining about the things I had to do and how he never helped with them, to which he turned to me and calmly replied, “You don’t let me.” Point taken. He was right. I had fallen into a position of martyrdom, where he couldn’t really help even if he wanted to.

Was my point valid? Yes, of course. But his was, too. Both were correct. I needed him to do more, and he needed me to let him. Micromanaging kills a person’s ingenuity and ability to problem-solve. When we started taking responsibility for our own contributions, the situation changed and we were both happier.

Even if you’re living with someone who won’t change what they’re doing, won’t look at their part, or refuses to attend a counseling session, there’s something you can do to change the dynamic. Remember, above all, that when it comes to parenting, you’re a team. Stay focused on the goal, which is not to be right but to raise great kids. Being a parent of a child on the autism spectrum is hard, so be sure to seek professional help when needed.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jamie

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    Is there some kind of indication or something that more dads are not involved in parenting if the kid has autism?

  • Janeen

    August 6th, 2014 at 5:25 AM

    That’s a good question. In my professional experience, unfortunately, yes. (See the comment I made above to Bill).

  • bill a

    August 5th, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    There is no “secret” to getting males involved. If this is a good dad, and I presume that most of us are, then they will wnat to be involved with no trickery employed.

    This must be a team effort between both parents to make this the best experience possible for the child or children. The communication lines must remain open and there must be trust that is reciprocated from both parents.

    Anything less than that is far less than what the couple and the children need.

  • Janeen

    August 6th, 2014 at 5:23 AM

    Bill a,
    Unfortunately even if a dad is a “good dad” it’s been my experience that many of them have a more difficult time adjusting to the diagnosis. Of course, like anything else, it’s not the case with ALL dads. But the grief over the diagnosis can be crippling to men who are challenged by a society that doesn’t teach men in particular how to express sadness.

  • Georgia

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:18 PM

    You both need to learn to not take out your frustrations on each other. This means talking in a way that you wish to be talked to, saying the things that you hope he will say too. You can’t demean or belittle someone just because they might not so something the same way that you do. So what? If there is a connection there between the child and the parent then who cares how it is made? It is not up to you to say it is wrong or to break that connection.

  • Kayla B.

    August 7th, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    “Dads Need to Feel Like They Are Contributing”

    so contribute
    don’t have to wait around to have someone tell you what to do

  • Farrah

    August 8th, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    I agree with all of these things but I think that for any mom or dad who does not feel like they are involved a lot of it boils down to them and not something that someone else is doing. If you want to be involved then I say go for it 100%! Make sure with your spouse that the two of you are on the same page about the basics but it is good for each parent to have their own individual relationship with their children. That sould not be disctated by the other spouse.

  • traeson

    August 13th, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    I have been in a position before where I wanted to be involved but felt like I couldn’t because there were those others in the mix who always seemed to take control and so that made getting in the middle of things myself feel like it was impossible.
    When you act as if this is your exclusive right please know that you could be keeping a really great person from stepping in for fear of not fitting on or doing the wrong thing.

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