My wife and I adopted our daughter, who I will call M, at birth via an open adoption. There is nothing easy about adoption. It is costly, difficult for birth parents and adoptive parents, and fraught with legal obstacles. According to the unsettled, conflicting research on the topic, adoption may cause mysterious psycho-social outcomes for the child. (Friendly advice: don’t let the research scare you.)
But we climbed that mountain, expecting to see a beautiful golden valley stretched out before us, our new life as parents. Then, the mist cleared from our eyes. We realized there were more mountains to cross with M. I suppose that is true for every family, but the mountains seem a little taller with a kid on the spectrum.
The autism spectrum ranges from exceptionally gifted savants to profoundly socially disconnected individuals, and everything in between. To share a quote I recently read, “If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum.”
M is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, communicative but quirky, smart but puzzled. M defies stereotypes, unafraid to talk to anyone, but socially awkward, blunt, and inappropriate. If you are fat, bald, or have a funny looking nose, M will point it out. She might also compliment you about your pretty hair, even if she has never met you before. She insists we give money to homeless people on the street, kindly offering a “God bless you” to them, even though she has never been to a single church service.
Good fathers – good parents – worry about their kids. Parental worries are magnified if your child is on the spectrum. Since M was a toddler, when confronted with frustrations, her first reaction has been an overreaction, outbursts that never end well. Her default answer to most questions is “No,” and there are no persuasive arguments that can turn no into yes. Often, “No” escalates to a complete tantrum, exploding into violence against person or property. These eruptions can happen at home, school, the mall, or wherever frustration arises. Appropriate reactions to everyday disappointments are not part of M’s behavioral repertoire.
Like most kids, I recall spending a lot of time annoyed with my hopelessly clueless parents, with their negative responses to my burning desires. “But why can’t I go see Star Wars again?”, I would ask, only to be rebuffed. I tended to bury my rage, stew a lot, and then I grew up. But M is just not wired to stew. She simmers, seethes, and boils over. Without full knowledge of the situation, M’s tantrums seem unhinged and dangerous, not an entirely incorrect assessment.
I worry about what will happen when M hits, kicks, or bites someone who is not aware of her diagnosis, who just sees it as a violent act. Would a store manager hesitate to call the police? Would a teacher call the resource officer? Would a police officer hesitate to use a taser or other lethal force? Would another kid pull punches if they were attacked in a blind rage? Even if they knew M was prone to these outbursts? M can be kind, loving, and funny, but not always.
I cannot be there every moment of every day for my daughter. M will have to learn to control her internal impulses without help from her mom or myself. Every day as she becomes more of an independent young person, the less we will be able to protect her from her own mental misfires.
I want to tell people that she is a sweet girl who loves animals, loves helping little kids, and always has a kind word when a baby is crying. She is smart, quirky, and funny. But she is also impulsive, moody, rude, and occasionally a real pain in the tush. Will she be able to explain herself in our absence?
We have a friend whose son is on the spectrum, with pervasive communication, social impairments and limited prospects for an independent life. As difficult as it would be to parent a child so severely impaired, in a certain limited way I am envious. If M were so clearly disabled, then I would worry less that people would hold expectations of “normal” behavior from her. Appearances can deceive. Sideways, from a distance, M appears to be a normal, ordinary child, occasionally cocky and smart beyond her years. But pull the wrong levers, twist the dials too far, and all hell is bound to break loose. Just as M may feel out of control of her emotions, I feel increasingly helpless in my ability to hold back the consequences an uncaring world can deliver.
And I also worry about social media, body image, dating, sexual harassment, EOG tests, and the long list of other things that fathers worry about.
It is just what fathers do.
Chris van Hasselt is an IT Project Manager for an international health and development non-profit. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, the Paris of the Piedmont, with his wife and daughter. He reads a lot of non-fiction, plays guitar, has too many hobbies, and allegedly snores. He blogs at Ad Punctum, http://www.ad-punctum.blog about life, books, politics, local interests, and various and sundry other things.