Walk-Off Moments for Special Needs Dads

My friend Mark is a great father to three neuro-typical kids, and he is currently floating on the highest cloud in the Dadosphere. His son Zach–a sophomore in high school–just hit a walk-off home run to win the Oregon 2-A state championship. I know, right? A walk-off home run! For. The. State. Championship. I expect Mark to stop smiling sometime in mid to late November.

When my son Jack was first diagnosed with autism, I had to come to grips with the fact we might never share those types of experiences. I hit pause on my inner Sports Center Top 10 highlight fantasies. My visions of him graduating with honors. Or delivering a killer speech in front of thousands. Or standing next to his groomsmen, beaming at his bride.

Every special needs parent goes through that phase, I expect, with varying degrees of melodrama. I might have had more drama than most, because for some reason I thought that I was required to do something catastrophic. I thought letting go meant setting fire to my fatherly hopes–forgetting them, scorning them, and most importantly, feeling sorry for them. But I was wrong.

Letting go demands only the loosening of the knuckles and the opening of a fist.

It requires not the burning of hope but the surrender of expectations. This will be different than what you thought. This will be different than what your friends are experiencing. And you’re going to have to be okay with that.

Timelines no longer exist for us. There is no such phrase as “on schedule.” We embrace Jack where he is at, and we push him to move forward at the same time. Our goal is progress without regard to time. We challenge him to learn his letters and use his words, knowing full well that it might take him years to permanently remember them. Years.

But when he pulls out the right word in the right moment? That’s gold.

Herein lies the inherent advantage of being a special needs father:

We don’t have to wait for the big moments. We get to celebrate every tiny victory.

“You waited for me when you crossed the street? That calls for french fries!”

“Did you see that? She waved at us. She actually waved! Kiss me hard.”

“Why am I drinking champagne before noon? Because he put his poopies in the potty!

Those celebrations might seem mechanical at first, but they won’t stay that way. I mean it. I can honestly say I know what Mark felt like when he watched his son win the state championship, because my boy pointed at his penguin book and said “Jack and Daddy.” That was his walk-off moment. Our walk-off moment, if I may say so.

I don’t know which comes first–learning to celebrate others’ victories, or learning to celebrate our own–but I know the two are linked. When we laud other families without comparison or jealousy, it makes our own victories at home all the sweeter. And when we enjoy our own children, it makes it easier to cheer on our friends.

We have no idea whether Jack will ever excel in any spectator event. Whether he’ll knock down a trey at the buzzer, or wear a cap and gown, or fall in love. He might do none of those things, or all of them. But for now, it does not matter because those are not his yard sticks. Not anymore. He’s on his own journey. We take progress a day at a time, and we throw dance parties when he gains an inch.

15 replies
  1. Chris Audet
    Chris Audet says:

    Thanks Jason! There’s a core thread of this article that intrigues me–measuring successes by our own measuring stick, not someone else’s.

  2. Kristi Gold
    Kristi Gold says:

    Thank you for that. Thank you. I needed that today, more than yesterday when I saw the original link. My 9 1/2 year old had a meltdown (mini) on his third day of ecology camp. He doesn’t want to go to the fourth and fignal day. I’ve decided, he gets to choose this one. He’s learning what other kids think of him. It sucks, but it’s also a walk off moment. We’ve worked so hard to get him to this point. So thanks!

    • jason
      jason says:

      That’s great, Kristi. Hard, I’m sure, but a big moment nonetheless. Sounds like you’re doing things right.

  3. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    Hi Jason….I loved this so much. My autistic son just graduated HS this year……so we’ve had several of our own ‘walk-off” moments in the past few weeks. Starting with my son asking and taking a girl to prom! What a moment for all of us. And culminating last night with him receiving his HS diploma and walking in graduation with 288 of his “peers”. I cant say its been easy, because it certainly has not. But every struggle that he has gone through to get here, makes it all the more victorious!

  4. S.Good
    S.Good says:

    My celebration this week was my 3 year old actually holding my hand through a high parking lot to and from his OT appointment. This was a first!!!! He never willing hold hands. We made if from the car all the way through the building to the correct room and back again. I was beaming with pride in my son. We celebrate things that are a given in my peers children but we celebrate with gusto!!! I seem to jokingly say the day I get a sentence out of him there will be a party with cake, but honestly it’s not a joke. Lol that celebration may trump all birthday parties to date!!!

    • jason
      jason says:

      Yes! We should probably just get a whole bunch of cake mixes, because there will be lots of reasons to celebrate. Thanks for reading!

  5. Mike Taylor
    Mike Taylor says:

    Dear Jason, Your poem was incredible and a gift. Our son on the spectrum is 18 and has had many walk off moments, from learning to talk and read, to being a graduate of a son-rise program, to attending main stream school here in Canada and playing on both special olympics and main stream sports teams. He daily walks the fence between the special needs and the typical world and steps off on both sides constantly. High school graduation is this year and date for the prom is up in the air, but because he deserves it…….I feel the higher power will bless him with that as well. We will see. Thanks for being an inspiration.

    Mike Taylor – Kingston, Nova Scotia Canada

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