Tinton Falls Dad on Autism Parenting: Lessons From "The Count"

It was not my proudest moment. In fact, looking back, it was my first real failure as a Dad. My four-year-old son ran frantically through the house opening every cabinet, drawer and closet.


It was not my proudest moment.  In fact, looking back, it was my first real failure as a Dad.  My four-year-old son ran frantically through the house opening every cabinet, drawer and closet. He was like a heroin addict in need of a fix.

I had been trying so desperately to reach him. I just wanted to sit with him and do a puzzle or play a game of catch like other fathers did with their sons. I just couldn't engage him. He was locked in his own little world: a world that revolved around Elmo and Cookie Monster and Count and Oscar the Grouch... a world in which I was an intruder.

All kids love Sesame Street, of course. But with Eric, it was (is) much deeper. He would spend hours if we let him just gazing at their images, lining them up meticulously, worshiping them. Appropriate play was rare, and he would let you know that you weren't invited to the party if you tried to engage him. He had his favorite little figurines and stuffed toys, but any picture would do.  He cherished any greeting card, coupon or sticker displaying their image like they were bricks of solid gold.

"Eric, catch the ball..."
"Eric, put the Count down for a minute..."
"Eric, look at me please..."

It took control of me. I grew desperate. He put the Count down for a second and I made my move. I took it away and hid it in our bedroom closet. He noticed immediately and began to cry. He pleaded with me to give it back using the best language he could muster. I was angry. I told him, "No, let's play catch."

Of course, a game of catch was not going to happen. How could I be so dumb? So cruel? I wasn't thinking clearly and a year's worth of despair and desperation boiled over. He cried and screamed for an hour. I swear, he hated me. Then, exhausted, he fell asleep.

I cried, and cursed God some more, and began to systematically scour the house for all things Sesame Street. I filled three boxes and four garbage bags with books, figurines and stuffed animals. I put everything in the attic then I too, exhausted, dozed on the couch next to my son. 

He awoke a little over an hour later and bolted to his toy box. The Count wasn't there. He frantically began his search. It was pathetic. Thirty five minutes into his desperate quest he discovered one of my oversights: a small Sesame Street magnet on the refrigerator, a memento of a trip to an amusement park. He put his thumb in his mouth, sat on the floor in the corner of the kitchen, and just held it.

Watching him, I realized how much I had to learn about being an Autism Dad. This wasn't an annoying habit that needed to be broken. It was (is) a part of him. It was (is) less of an enjoyment for him and more of a thirst or hunger. I cursed myself for a few minutes, then I made a silent promise to my little hero that I would do better... that I would be better. 

In the subsequent years we have learned to play judo with Eric's obsessions, which have morphed from Sesame Street... to Toy Story... to Cars... to Monsters Inc... back to Sesame Street again. Since we have learned to chill out a little (and thanks to his teachers, therapists and doctors), his obsessions have diminished  from completely debilitating to mildly cumbersome. We try to use his "guys" to engage him, teach him and soothe him when the world gets a little weird. These days the Count gets his own seat at the table when we go to a restaurant. Eric spends less time in Count's world and more and more time bringing the Count into ours. You know what? I kinda like the Count! Ah.. Ah... Ah!

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KG April 01, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Jerry-Thank you for sharing your story. My wife and I have been there with our five year old who is also on the spectrum. It's not easy learning what makes a child on the spectrum tick and those games of catch you (and I) long for are the exception, not the norm. Keep doing what you are doing as a dad-showing patience, understanding and doing all you can to learn about the disorder. The therapists and teachers, if you have good ones as you mentioned, make a world of difference. Regards, Keith


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