The Beauty and Struggles of Parenting a Child with an Exceptional Mind

The Beauty and Struggles of Parenting a Child with an Exceptional Mind
Learning to parent with openness and flexibility.

It’s been raining for two days straight, and my three daughters are outside jumping in the puddles in their rain boots while they twirl their colorful umbrellas. For my oldest daughter, Izzy, the puddle jumping quickly becomes a mission to save every earthworm that has emerged from the lawn. She brings one over to me and says, “See dad, this is where you pick up a worm. You can’t pick it up here because it’s where their hearts are.” Izzy knows about worms, and dogs, and dinosaurs, and especially cheetahs. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of animals. Mostly this is because she’s incredibly intelligent, but part of it is that she has autism, and her brain works a little differently than most. You probably wouldn’t notice it if you met her, but it’s there. 

And it’s the kind of thing I think dads should talk about. 

When Izzy was two, she started having issues with eating. Kids usually go through a picky phase, but with Izzy it was different. Eating new foods became a source of debilitating angst complete with meltdowns, hyperventilating, and sometimes throwing up right onto her highchair tray. And all of this was before taking a single bite. I read all of this as disobedience, and it made me angry, like, I had to leave the room so I didn’t scream, angry. We weren’t going to be a two-dinner household: This is what we’re having for dinner – you can eat it or not. Just like my dad used to say when I was little and had anxiety around eating. Wait…dammit. 

Ok, so maybe part of the issue was my approach. But it didn’t matter how calm I stayed, the rewards I would offer, the anxiety wouldn’t go away.

I swore it was behavioral, and nothing else, but at my wife’s encouragement, I agreed to have Izzy evaluated by a child psychologist.

Soon Izzy was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and we started working with a feeding clinic. It was slow, laborious, and it seemed each time Izzy would make progress, another setback would erase her gains. 

As Izzy got older, we noticed new personality traits that seemed not-quite-right, the most prominent were a rigidity in thinking (about anything and everything) and a lack of empathy towards others, especially her sisters. I was talking to Izzy’s play therapist one day, and she said, “Izzy will have some struggles, she’s rigid in her thinking and has this social mind-blindness about the feelings or needs of others.” I said, “Doctor, you’re describing a kid on the spectrum.” And she said, “Well…yes.” Suddenly it all made sense. But now what?

Maybe your kid’s issue isn’t autism or anxiety, but whatever it is, here are some hard truths I’ve had to learn (and frankly, I’m still learning them). 

Ignoring These Issues Won’t Make Them Go Away

I work with kids every day as a teacher, so you’d think I’d be the first to advocate for my kid. But it’s easy to have an objective view with someone else’s child. The truth is that I didn’t want to believe there was anything different about Izzy. Her eating issues were behavioral; her lack of empathy was just a personality trait we had to work on. It’s all just who she is. My wife, Katie, is Izzy’s stepmom, and I needed her more objective eye to remind me that ignoring red flags isn’t helping Izzy live her best life. 

You can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is. And if your child is struggling, and you can’t figure it out, get some help. Talk to your pediatrician, a child psychologist, your kid’s teacher. You may find out that what seems like something wrong may just be something unique, and the earlier you can identify it, the earlier you can start learning about it. 

You Can’t Stop Learning

Every day I have to renew my commitment to learning how to best meet Izzy’s needs, parent her in a way that makes sense to her unique brain, and all while parenting two other kids. 

There are countless books about raising a kid with autism. There are parents with more experience than me. There are facebook groups, and the psychologists who work at my school. I have no shortage of resources to help me understand how to best raise Izzy. 

Honestly, one of my best resources is actually Izzy. Every day, week, month, Katie and I have to take stock and chat about what’s working, what’s effective, and what’s not. And the way we get that information is by being cognizant of Izzy’s behavior and reactions to the people around her. 

You Can’t Shield Your Child from the World

Izzy has a lot of friends at school (She’s in the third grade now), and we use dinner-table conversations about these relationships to reinforce Izzy’s learning to practice empathy for others and flexibility in her thinking. Despite our efforts, I know that Izzy will struggle relationally. 

I want to do everything I can to shield Izzy from the cruelty of the world, but I have to let her learn how to navigate the world as a person with autism. I can’t pick her up every time she falls, but I can help her find the tools to pick herself up. 

Whatever your kid is facing that sets them apart, the best advocacy is equipping them with the tools to face their own unique challenges. Eliminating the challenges for them won’t help. 

Normalizing is Empowering

The day that we got Izzy’s autism diagnosis, I talked to her about it. I told her about how her brain works a little differently than other kids’. I said it’s not good or bad; it’s just who you are. I also told her that while it’s not a secret, it’s not something she needs to broadcast. I know how mean kids can be, and I didn’t want her to have a label that others could mock. 

The next day Izzy told her entire class that she has autism (apparently my advice didn’t take). She said it came up during library time. While reading a book to the kids (apparently about someone autistic), the librarian asked, “Do any of you know anyone with autism?” Izzy raised her hand and said, “I have autism.” She said the librarian gave her a fist bump, and none of the other kids seemed to care. I started to cry. I told her to forget about what I’d said: “You can tell whoever you want. Your autism is not who you are. It’s just a part of who you are, and you’re amazing.” 

I’m thankful that we’re living in an informed and accepting time in modern history. Young kids today understand that the kid with autism, the kid in the wheelchair, the kid with Down Syndrome, these kids are normal kids: We’re just all different from each other. 

Celebrate Who Your Kid Is

I had plans for Izzy before she was born. I knew how she was going to turn out. But we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men. And truth be told, Izzy hasn’t just shattered my plans, she’s exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. 

Take a breath; take a beat. Ask for some help, read a book, and love exactly who your kid is. You’re not alone, dad. You can do this, and so can your kid.

When Izzy was diagnosed with autism, I realized I had  to mourn the plans I had that I knew probably wouldn’t come true. I still talk about it with my therapist when a challenge comes up. It’s an ongoing recognition on my part that  Izzy’s life isn’t about me; it’s about her. 

I might walk Izzy down the aisle someday; she also might end up living alone in a little house with a husky and her gecko, Brazil (seriously that’s his name). I don’t care – I want her to be happy. I want her to be confident in who she is and proud of whatever direction her life takes. 

Izzy loves legos, dinosaurs, and apparently earthworms. She’s pretty good at karate, oh, and she happens to have autism. And all of that is pretty damn cool if you ask me. 

No one ever prepares you for the number of hours you’re going to spend worrying about your kids. And when you find out that one of your kids might be a little off the straight and narrow, it’s normal to see that worry go through the roof. 

Take a breath; take a beat. Ask for some help, read a book, and love exactly who your kid is. You’re not alone, dad. You can do this, and so can your kid. 

Mike Henson

Mike Henson is a literature teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He enjoys shooting 35mm film, restoring vintage straight blades, purchasing too many American-made goods, and spending time with his wife and their three daughters.