Michael’s Dad on How He Improved His Relationship With Our Autistic Son

Michael loves it when I carry him – he orders me around all the time. I am happy with this slave-master relationship.

(My intro: For a long time, I was Michael’s favourite parent. It wasn’t even a competition. He would smile as soon as he saw me, I got hugs every five seconds and kisses every two, and you could just see his joy at being around me.

It’s only fair, I am the one that went through sixteen hours of labour, only to then go through a caesarean because the baby didn’t want to come out and was getting into distress. I had to express colostrum (it’s like getting your nipples squeezed really hard for about ten minutes straight) and then had to learn to breastfeed a child that was already on a bit of formula from birth because he had to go into a special care nursery. Then I continued to breastfeed this child, every two or three hours for an hour at a time since I have never produced massive amounts of milk, for fifteen months. I did all of that, so I totally deserve my hugs and kisses.

But this wasn’t as great as it should have been, because I could see how much my husband wanted what I had. And he never got it. For the first two years of his life, Michael pretty much ignored his dad. And everyone else of course. Whether Brad was home from work or not, Michael didn’t care. I could see it broke Brad’s heart a little bit every time and I was sad because I knew it was hard to look after a child with so many needs, who doesn’t give you the ‘rewards’ that parents live for.

It was also not great because it meant I was very limited in my options for doing things without Michael. If we were not connected at the hip, Michael was likely crying.

Fast forward a year and Brad is now Michael’s favourite parent. Well co-favourite parent. I’m ok too, he still likes me a lot. So thank you breastfeeding. But Brad is right up there with me.

We got there through perseverance and lots of positive reinforcement and pairing. Brad never gives up, and he loves being the ‘nice’ parent. He also learned to become an ABA therapist, which helped a lot with the relationship. I also had to learn to step back and even if I knew Michael would prefer to be with me, to encourage him to spend time with dad. I have a post on building a relationship with an autistic toddler that has some useful tips as well.

Brad can never say no to Michael’s blue eyed little baby gaze and Michael has figured out that if mum says no, daddy will probably say yes. We did this deliberately. And it has worked, which is wonderful. This is Brad’s story about being the co-favourite parent.)

On being the favourite parent 

We recently went on a cruise for 10 days. For the vast majority of that time, Michael wanted to be carried by me. Regardless of whether he was happy or sad, excited or bored, with my wife or by himself, when I came into his line of sight, we would immediately run over to me, put his hands up, and look at me with puppy dog eyes.

It took a lot of hard work for me to get Michael to walk down these stairs by himself, without being carried by me.

This wasn’t always the case. For the majority of Michael’s life, people were placed into three categories.

  • Mum

Mum is good. She is the source of food, cuddles, tickles and many kisses. If Mum wasn’t carrying him, or at least in his direct line of sight, he would try to find her.

  • Not Mum

This included me, and Julia’s grandmother. We both spent a lot of time with Michael, and he knew that if Mum wasn’t there, then we could help him to find her.

  • Definitely Not Mum

This included everybody else. These outsiders had no beneficial role in Michael’s life. He didn’t know who they were, and he didn’t know that they could help him find Mum. When he could only see people from this category, he would cry.

Step 1: Mum Stepped Back. I stepped up.

When Michael had just turned two, something unexpected happened. Mum got the flu, and she was bedridden for a week. This meant that Mum could not get him food. Instead, it had to come from me. When I took him to visit family, he scanned the room for Mum, but she wasn’t there, so he went with the next best option and clung on to me for dear life.

Mum was also doing many hours of ABA therapy at the time. We’re quite strict on maintaining his hours, so I filled in most of her hours. This meant that I was giving Michael lots of rewards such as bread, iPad, and piggybacks for getting certain tasks correct.

Step 2: Mum Comes Back but I’m Still There

Eventually, Mum recovered from her illness, and was able to resume her normal duties as Michael’s servant. (my side note: I am in fact Michael’s slave. Servants get paid). However, Michael didn’t register that. For all intents and purposes, I was now the source of the good things in life. Mum would go to give Michael a hug, and he would walk past her and give me a hug. He still grabbed my hand to change his cartoon. He would bring his empty container over to me, and expect me to fill it with more bread.

Over time, Michael allowed Mum to resume more of her duties, and he rediscovered that she was useful for most things. As time went on, Michael started to show a general preference back towards Mum. However, I was permanently attributed the role of ‘carrier’. Whenever Michael wants to be picked up, he will find me, and he will ask to be carried.

I am also occasionally useful for other things. Here I am helping Michael roll up his sleeves.

The roles Michael attributes to everyone

It’s been interesting and amusing to see that Michael has attributed roles for other people as well. Whenever Julia’s grandmother walks in the door, Michael immediately hops into his pram, anticipating that she will take him to the park. Whenever he sees his therapist, he will walk behind her and put his arms up, expecting that she will give him a piggyback. And whenever he sees his cousin, we will start to run away and giggle, anticipating that he will be chased.

I’d like to see Michael start associating me with more roles. I’d love it if he let me chase him, or play peek-a-boo. Also, carrying him for 10 days straight is hard on the back. Nevertheless, I love my time as the co-favourite parent. Michael now regularly gives me hugs and kisses (whilst being carried), and it is the greatest reward I could hope for.

My Advice for Other Dads

And to all the other dads out there I say – just keep trying. I was where you are. My son ignored me or actively avoided me. For months and months I kept trying and there seemed to be no change. It would have been easy to give up and help my wife in other ways.

But I kept trying. Doing some ABA therapy with my son helped, and keeping my demands very simple. It gave me some activities to do with him so I could play at his level, even if it was only for half an hour a day. Giving him everything he wanted, so he associated me with good things. Eventually the demands can be increased gradually but the special relationship we formed will stay.

There were many times in the first six months after Michael’s diagnosis that I never thought that I would get the privilege of getting a sore back though, as Michael never wanted to be carried by me. Or wrestle with me. Or be around me. Now when I come home he runs to me and asks for a hug. It is only when you don’t have something for a while that you start to really appreciate how special it is. The relationship I now have with my son is worth every second of the hard work it took to get here.

It is important to persevere and always try to build your relationship. Even if your child looks at you like you are insane.
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