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Joseph burst through the door yesterday, excitement on his face.

“You won’t believe what we saw!” he exclaimed.

“What did you see?” I asked.

“I saw — we saw — we — I — we saw a, um, a squirrel. No! Um, we saw a little chimpanzee!”

He’s been watching the movie Summer of the Monkeys, so I figured he was borrowing some of their script and trying to adapt it, more or less, to his life. It was very cute, and it was fun to see him so expressive, stammering around with personal pronouns and using his imagination. In the movie, the main character is a boy who spends quite a bit of time out in nature by himself. Suddenly Joseph is feeling better — and braver — about being alone out on our land. Nice!

The first month of this summer was hectic. Joseph was in a special program for high-functioning kids who might regress if they didn’t have extra schooling, so he was up early every day, catching the short yellow bus at 7:30am and getting delivered back after lunch.

He picked up some really bad habits at that program. Summer school recesses had him interacting, not just with his class, but with kids like the non-verbal ten year-old who still wears a diaper and makes odd sounds. Joseph will screw up his face to look just like this kid and then mimic the sounds — perfectly, I’m sure. Which would be okay in private, but he’ll also happily do it in public. So we’re down at the hotel breakfast room on our vacation and he breaks into a loud rendition of “Unnhhh, ughhhh, ughhhhhhhhhh!”with a screwed-up face. Naturally, other people take notice and try not to stare at the severely-impaired kid. But they do anyway.

Sigh. Perhaps this was the last year for Joseph to do the summer program.

Joseph does pretty well academically, but math has been difficult. A friend referred me to a program called Addition in Minutes, which we’ve been spending 20-30 minutes on daily. Joseph is finally learning his math facts (e.g., memorizing), and I am experiencing the lure of homeschooling. To get how my kid learns, to tailor things to that. To take our time when we need to, to hurry past when it’s easy. To sit down and study as it fits into our rhythm. It has many good pieces.

Before Joseph even started school, I looked seriously into homeschooling. An Education Specialist talked me out of it, though. She maintained that Joseph needed as much social practice as he could get, so public school would be the way to go.

I trust Joseph. If he is feeling good and confident at school, we’ll continue there. If and when things go asunder, it’ll be time to have another look at homeschooling. Meanwhile, I’m much enjoying our math time together. It brings us closer.

RDI puts a lot of emphasis on apprenticeship. Most kiddos naturally understand that Mom and Dad are guides and teachers, and they are (generally) happy and eager to learn. Not necessarily so with kids on the spectrum, so we actually work on helping our kids become apprentices. I’ve noticed a nice shift in Joseph this summer, where he is more willing to listen to me and learn from me. Simple things, like how much 3/4 is on a measuring cup, or harder things, like how to fix the wheel on the ottoman.

chickenJoseph is really eager to have a farm. We are going to start (and possibly end) with half a dozen chickens, which will be another great way to work on apprenticeship. This Saturday we’re going to visit a couple of friends who already have chickens, and, as adults, model what it is to be in apprentice mode ourselves. We’ll build the chicken coop as a family, and, when the chooks arrive, Joseph will play a big part in their feeding and care. I’m feeling pretty excited about the opportunities this endeavor will create!

So all in all, a good summer. As they say in RDI, good enough. Not perfect, but good enough. I am content with that.

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Today’s fathers are sure different from mine. Incredibly intellectual, my dad never reached out to hug me, or touch my hand, or to do anything affectionate in that way. Conversations with him consisted of his eyes looking at me over the newspaper, or whichever professional magazine he happened to be reading. Playing was something children did with each other.

That’s what last generation’s fathers were raised to be like. Maybe that’s why I never tire of seeing a father being tender or playful with his children. Dads today are so much more in touch with their hearts — so much more willing to meet a child where they’re at.

Blue Eyes was going to be an affectionate, hands-on father like that. But one of the most difficult aspects of autism for us parents is how it’s a one-way street: you put out all kinds of love and affection, and nothing comes back. Blue Eyes was sad when he’d come home from work, a whole day away from his son, and there would be no light of recognition in Joseph’s eyes — no smile saved just for Daddy. No nothing.

Ouch.

Neurotypical kids naturally take the apprenticeship role, seeking to learn from their elders, trying to be just like them. This is a great way for dads to interact with their kids, and Blue Eyes, a builder and a craftsman, looked forward to sharing his expertise with Joseph.

But autism drives a wedge in the master-apprentice role. Autistic children are often not interested in learning, in expanding their worlds. Comfort is found in a small world — a narrow, predictable world.

Thanks to various interventions and a lot of grace, the one-way street with Joseph has substantially more two-way traffic than it used to.  We have also worked hard on developing his apprenticeship role, and it’s coming along nicely.

The Waldorf system maintains that the mother holds the child, literally and figuratively, until s/he is seven. Joseph turned eight this spring, and it’s become apparent to us that Blue Eyes needs to step in more. Fearful by nature, Joseph will become even more of a mommy’s boy if Dad doesn’t take on a more prominent role.

Though Joseph’s had a lot of recovery, there are still many autism-related obstacles that Blue Eyes has to wade through. John, our RDI Consultant, has been working with my guys on how to do stuff together, like build simple things. I’m proud of Blue Eyes for letting go of past hurts and rejections, and moving forward to create a close relationship with Joseph as he is now.

It’s a funny thing: Every time I step out of the picture and the guys do something together, Joseph’s energy is different. He thrives under his dad’s attention. Blue Eyes challenges him more — he needs that — and models how to be a whole, healthy man. Things I can never do.

So here’s to dads: what a priceless role you play. Kudos to you, Blue Eyes, for your resilience, your love for your son, and your willingness to keep showing up in his life no matter what. You’re the best.

Happy Fathers Day to all you amazing men, and most especially to those of you who stay in your kids face when you’d rather not; for those of you willing to do the hard things; and for those of you who never, never give up on your special needs child.

Autism and Spirituality: the Dance

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