For Dads who are just coming to terms with a child's special needs – or even those for whom the diagnosis isn't news anymore – a good step forward is something that doesn't come easily to a lot of men. Reach out to other guys who are going through the same thing.
A support group for just fathers allows men to talk about tangible issues, such as finding a good therapist or buying the right equipment, while sharing the more painful aspects of their children's lives with men who understand.
"It can hit hard when you're at the water cooler at work and another guy starts talking about his son, and how he just hit a home run, and you're happy because your kid didn't puke that day," says Paul, a public relations professional in Bergen County whose young son has disabilities. Paul preferred that his last name not be used for this article.
"The good news is that you're not alone out there," he adds. "There are plenty of parents – or fathers – a street away, a state away, a country away, who have a child with the same issues as yours."
One group of 15 to 18 men with children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, including Asperger syndrome, get together once a month to help each other through their parenting issues. Run by Vincent Varrassi, an educational consultant who specializes in working with secondary and post-secondary school students, the group is sponsored by ASPEN, a statewide group that provides education, support, and advocacy for families and individuals affected by autism spectrum disorders.
"We talk about the kids, not fertilizer or sports," Varrassi says. "The dads enjoy sharing stories with one another. Some of the guys come to meetings only when their family is going through a crisis, and others come regularly because they like the social aspect of the group."
Mothers seem to outnumber fathers at many parent support groups. Even those fathers who do go to parent groups tend to keep quiet. Men don't seem to speak as freely about family issues in public, Varrassi says.
"But you put a group of dads together with just other dads," he says, "and they'll break your heart talking about the pain of watching their kids getting taken advantage of. They're in tears telling their stories."
Jim, a salesman in Bergen County who also prefers not to use his last name, has been a member of Varrassi's group for about five years. "We don't talk about anything but our kids," he says. "Our group is more about solving problems than complaining," he says.
"Some of the dads in the groups have older sons – one is 23 years old – and I can listen to them and know what to expect as my son gets older," Jim says. "Some of the dads have little kids, and I can share my experiences with them. This is an outlet where you can talk with other dads who share the same challenges that you do."
Different ways of coping
Robert Naseef understands the difficulties men can have adjusting to a diagnosis in their child. Not only does he have a 32-year-old son with autism, he's also a psychologist who counsels people with autism and other developmental disabilities, as well as their families.
"It's hard to talk about this from a man's perspective," Naseef says. "When things are beyond our control, when we find something that we can't solve, we're speechless."
"Some dads are fully accepting of their child's diagnosis, while others are understandably overwhelmed and focus on their role as a breadwinner," says Suzanne Buchanan, clinical director at Autism New Jersey.
Society's changing views on men's roles in parenting in general affect how dads participate in raising their children with special needs.
"Now I hear guys saying they're looking to help more, trying to help their wives cope with the issues of their special needs kids," Varrassi says. "It used to be that the wives pushed their husbands to join these support groups. Now many dads are proactively seeking out support groups."
Buchanan agrees. "We've seen an increase in the number of fathers participating in autism-related events, seminars and workshops over the past 10 years," she says.
Every father has his own way of interacting with his kids. Dads of children with autism can often benefit from participating in training sessions on how to engage and motivate their children. They can also be a support system for mom or a buffer with in-laws and other extended family members who need help understanding the child's and family's needs.
Other dads take on fundraising activities. One group of fathers, for example, organizes events such as bike rides and even a golf tournament to raise funds for school programs.
Advice to new dads
These fathers have some advice for men whose children have recently been diagnosed with a disability or special challenge.
"The hardest thing at first," Paul says, "is that you ask 'why me?' You have to accept it. Be active and read up a bit on the diagnosis. You have to understand that your lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Then you have to learn that it's OK to talk about your child's diagnosis."
"Accept your kids for what they are and play up their strengths," Jim says. "Try not to look at your child's disabilities. Love him or her for who they are."
"Having a child with challenges is a difficult journey, but it's also rewarding," Paul adds. "You have to embrace it instead of pushing it away."
Resources for the Family
"Autism: Start Here – What Families Need to Know," a new publication written by Autism New Jersey professionals.
For more information, go to autismnj.org
CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) of Bergen County
Information at chaddbc.org
Family Support Organization of Bergen County
Mahwah Parent Advocacy Group
Contact Christine Luciano at firstname.lastname@example.org
Oradell Parent Group
Contact Mary Lang at email@example.com
Ramsey/Saddle River Parents of Special Needs Children
Information at firstname.lastname@example.org
River Edge Families of Children United for Special Needs
River Vale Parents of Exceptional Children
Contact Patricia Pane at email@example.com
Special Parents of Teaneck
Information at spotnj.org
Supporting Parents of Exceptional Children
Contact Lori Ruschman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources for Fathers
ASPEN Fathers' Support Group
Meets once a month on Mondays in Paramus
Contact Vince Varrassi, email@example.com
The National Fathers' Network
Autistic Like Me: A Father's Perspective, a new documentary. For more information, go to autisticlikeme.net.