A diagnosis brings an unexpected gift to a father.
Jay was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) on his second birthday. Needless to say, autism was not the gift we wanted. But after six months of watching him lose skills, language, and personality, the news wasn’t a surprise. Where a silly little boy with a quick smile had been, there was a withdrawn, restless creature that resembled his parents, but seemed to have little connection with my wife and I.
I didn’t sign up for this. My privileged, ivy-covered life path was paved before me, and raising a handicapped child wasn’t even on the map. As the sunlight bled from that afternoon, I couldn’t bear to look at Jay. He was supposed to be my ballgame buddy, my school-play superstar, my refrigerator Rembrandt. Our future seemed so bright—but now, on a day that should have been full celebration and promise, the three of us sat alone with the devastating news in a 776-square-foot box on a colorless, late-winter day.
The news was tough on our marriage. Emma dove into understanding Jay’s condition. She planned his treatment schedule. She called doctors and therapists and clinics, begging for time and advice. I watched, and withdrew. I gained twenty-five pounds. I mourned my lost son. I compressed the sadness into barely concealed rage that came out as blasts of verbal abuse at Emma, or lashes of physical punishment at Jay. For a time, it was all about me.
Not anymore. Autism is a condition that affects an individual, but infects a family. Emma and I sought individual counseling, began taking anti-depressants, and reassessed our lives. More than four years later we have a different, brighter outlook on Jay and his future. But we will continue to struggle with the emotional impact of his condition every day.
This column is intended to accomplish a few things: First, I hope it gives me an outlet to articulate my thoughts and emotions, not just for the reader, but for myself. Second, I want to give a dad’s perspective on raising a boy with autism; I hope that some of what I have learned along this rugged, uncharted road will be helpful to others. Finally, I want to celebrate Jay’s remarkable life and his progress in the face of this daunting challenge. It’s cliché but true: his condition has taught me more about myself than I had ever imagined—or wanted—to learn. Jay’s autism may be the gift I needed.