For years, my wife, Jennie, and I were up to our necks in early intervention. It literally took over both of our lives completely. That time was a blur of evaluations, IEPs, EEGs, medications, OT, PT, SLP, and other therapies. We traipsed across the country to see this developmental optometrist, or to attend that special needs conference or workshop. Dinner-table conversation revolved around which new therapy we might try. Should we do Neuro-fit? Or Vision Therapy? Or maybe The Listening Program. What about neuro-feedback? Should Graham join a social skills group for the summer? What about a tutor? Jennie is to scheduling what Bobby Fisher was to chess. She’s a scheduling savant. For years Graham’s life was micro-scheduled with ninja-like precision every moment of every day. From the time he was one-and-a-half, until the time he was around seven, not a nano-moment of early intervention time was wasted, lest a neural connection that could be forged wasn’t. Our lives seemed to revolve almost entirely around addressing Graham’s issues.
And then, slowly, over the past year and a half, we have phased things out. First, we let go of the in-home one-on-one work, then we took him off the meds, then we stopped the add-on therapies like OT and Neuro-fit, and finally decided to skip the social skills group. Instead we started Karate, took up swimming lessons, and he started playing soccer. He and I joined Adventure Guides and went camping a bunch of times with a group of dads and boys. And one morning we woke up, as if from some long and incredible dream, into a state of almost surreal normalcy. Did that all really happen? I remember people saying things to me back when we were mired in the thick of it. Things like, “this too shall pass”, and “it gets easier”. I didn’t buy it for a second, of course. But then, guess what…it got easier. That phase of life did pass. Graham is now eight years old, and a week from finishing Second Grade. He still gets some services at school, and he still struggles with some things, but the earthquake of the diagnosis, the tsunami of early intervention, the tornadoes of behavioral freak-outs, the whirlwind of traveling all over looking for answers, the drought of a sense of calm…all of it passed. And now it feels like we’re entering the summer of Graham’s childhood, marked by Saturday afternoons at the park for a game of horse, and trips to visit family in the south and back east.
Last week we got a call from one of Jennie’s good childhood friends. Her son, now two and a half, is missing milestones, and engaging in some repetitive behaviors. When we both talked to her on the phone last week, we were reminded of ourselves back in that early phase — the anxiety, the dread, the shock. And I realized that while we are emerging out the backside of our odyssey, a whole new crop of parents is just starting theirs.
And in that, a whole new freshman class of special needs dads will be celebrating this Father’s Day while grappling with one of the craziest curve balls life can throw. Their roles as fathers just redefined mid-step. Their responsibilities just doubled. And all their assumptions about their child’s future have been suddenly thrown into question.
So it’s to those dads I want to send a message this Father’s Day. Though you probably won’t believe me, I’m going to tell you anyway…it gets easier. This phase will pass. Though no one can predict your child’s developmental trajectory, things will get better. It can be a pretty rough road at times, and can take a toll on our marriages, and our jobs, but stay open to the possibility that in the final analysis, this could be one of the best things that ever happened to you. Something almost magical happens when we, as fathers, are forced to let go of the typical child we thought we had, and are asked to show up in a big way for the unique and amazing being we’ve been lucky enough to receive.
Erik Linthorst is a filmmaker and special needs ‘dadvocate’. His film about his own special needs journey, Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story (www.autisticlike.com) was broadcast nationwide on PBS in 2011. He lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife, Jennie and his son, Graham.