Sunday, September 23, 2012

Are You My Daddy?

The Statistics - I wish I could say there is comfort in numbers, but not this time. The parents of 86 percent of children with autism, are divorced. Which means the majority of our ASD children and families are struggling with divorce and single parenting.

It’s been pretty clear (albeit painful) to see how divorce has affected my daughter Evyn. She pushes down her feelings and has sudden bursts of anger and defiance. She is very slow to trust and her self esteem was terrible for years. All of which can be easily traced to her feelings of abandonment, inadequacy, anger, hurt and loss.

I don’t’ wish Nicky had the same feelings. I do wish I had a crystal ball so I could understand what he is feeling and thinking. I miss not having the opportunity to answer his questions or help him understand. So I do the only thing I can, keep my eye’s open for signs and respond to what I do see.

In the beginning of our separation Nicky did show me how difficult it was for him. He would have horrendous meltdowns when his father would come or go. If he thought he heard his Dad coming in the house, and it turned out to be someone else he would have severe tantrums that lasted for hours. The same thing happened when he dad would leave. For months after his dad moved out he was anxious tensing up every time he heard the back gate and front door. Over time he stopped being anxious and because his Dad was no longer coming or going. At that point there were no clues of how he was coping or feeling. I didn't have the luxury of being able to explain "people" much less divorce to Nicky. I just had to stay on alert for signs because I knew he had to be feeling something. I just didn't know what.

Later, this is how Nicky let me know he was thinking about his dad.
In July 2007 I was driving with Nicky in the back seat when he yelled “Daddy Daddy!” in a loud shrill voice. My brain started spinning because I had no idea what he had seen that caused him to call out for his dad, who to the best of my knowledge was not in this country, much less strolling along Melrose Avenue!
I looked around and I saw a man walking on the sidewalk with his back toward us. From a distance he could have been his dad, same height, build and coloring. I said, “No Nicky, he just looks like daddy from behind”. He settled down immediately and said “Daddy airport?” Looking away from him – to hide the tears that exploded out of my eyes - I said, “Yes daddy airport”.

This is how Nicky let me know he is still looking for his dad.
2007 until today: Remember the Dr. Seuss book where a little bird goes up to mommy animals and asks “Are you My Mommy?” That’s Nicky. I never know when where or what the trigger will be, but suddenly Nicky will spot a man - with just the slightest feature in common with his dad - and he’ll yell out “Daddy Daddy?” begging the question “Are you my Daddy?” He runs up to men to get a closer look at their faces, while he yells. Poor men, they don’t know what to do. They just freeze, push out a smile and then try to figure out what to say, what to do. The looks of terror I have seen on their faces would be hysterical if it wasn’t so sad. The first time it happened I remember being horrified because people stared at me, as if to say “You #*@*!! Doesn’t your kid know who his Daddy is?!” Very Funny. Nicky still runs up to men. I’ve learned to just grab him and say “Oh Yeah he does look like Daddy from behind” as I grab him and move away as fast as I can.

It’s not just daddy look-a-likes that trigger Nicky. It might be in a new place, seeing another family, a picture, a program or movie where the word Daddy is mentioned. A few weeks ago Evyn and a friend of mine were all seated around a table in a restaurant where we had never been before. Nicky looked at the four of us, then he looked and pointed out the window toward the mountains and loudly repeated “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy?” about 8 times. I asked if he missed Dad, was he thinking about Dad? He said “yes”. I told him that Dad’s not here; he’s not in the mountains. He took a deep breath and said “Daddy Airport?”. I said, “Yes Daddy airport”. The conversation ended and he seemed okay.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of how divorce might be for Nicky. Like most kids, he has not internalized having played a role in his father’s absence; he has no judgment about who’s right and who’s wrong. For Nicky divorce is more like a game of “Where is the World is Carmen San Diego?”. He’s sad on the days he thinks about his dad and seemingly fine on the others. He is disappointed that he hasn't found his dad, but finding him is an ongoing journey for Nicky. I think to him, his dad left one day and he believes he will find him one day. His dad could be anywhere. He doesn't know where, but he intends to keep on looking.


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  2. You've captured the pain of the whole family with your words. This blog should be read every day by young (and not so young) men and women contemplating starting a family. With a divorce rate of 50%, there is a good chance that this same story and the resultant pain will be part of many of their lives.