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.