Special Kids, Special Dads

by Doug Arnold

“I’m having a baby, my Baby and me!”

Ricky sang this song to Lucy when he found out they were expecting their little bundle of joy. Dreams are born before the baby arrives. Dads buy footballs, baseballs, over-sized ball caps from their favorite teams and place these items in the crib. What a thrill it is to be on the receiving end of a new life being birthed into this world! Your dreams are now embodied in this fragile, little bundle of energy … your child. Whether this is your first child or your sixth, each child represents a new dream.

Go with me now into my feelings and thoughts the day my stereotypical dream bubble burst for my second son. A severe reaction to a vaccine booster caused a serious seizure disorder called Infantile Spasms. As I sat with my wife in the pedi-neurologist’s office, we heard the phrases, “won’t sit up,” “won’t feed himself,” “won’t be able to tie his own shoes,” and my head began to spin. How can a kid who cannot tie his shoes run a football for the winning score? How can a kid who cannot sit up sink the winning basket at the buzzer? … or hit the winning homerun? I felt as though the little boy of whom I had dreamed had “died” right there in that doctor’s office. I had to travel through the grief process – with my wife. The doctor looked at me and informed us that 90% of marriages with children diagnosed with severe challenges end in divorce—that the man runs away. I looked at my wife and informed her that divorce was not an option, and now eight years later, we will celebrate our 16th anniversary this spring. My wife and I pressed into the Lord in an all-new way. We saw the Lord heal our son of the seizure disorder (another, longer story all its own), but the seizures had done damage to the brain that led to a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. I still did not have my typical, little boy back, but it is my charge as his father to raise him in the ways of the Lord. I found myself climbing four major stepping stones that I want to share with other dads whose children have special needs, whether autism or attention deficit, Down syndrome or dyslexia, or other issues.

The first stone was dealing with the grief process: anger, denial, blaming and questioning (God), bargaining, and finally acceptance. While I have come to a place of acceptance, I admit falling back into the questioning phase now and again. “Why my kid? What is the reason he has to suffer?” I have posed these questions to the Lord, who is big enough to handle the tough questions. It took almost seven years, but I believe I have an answer. The obstetrician who delivered our two younger children noted that she had seen a sharp increase in the number of children being born with Down syndrome over the last ten years. All of these children were born to Christian parents, parents who would not abandon these kids either before birth or after for the sake of convenience. My son was born with a purpose. God created him just as he is, and once I came to this realization, I saw him in a new light. Out of our trials and triumphs, life lessons, challenges, and successes has been born a ministry to other families traveling the same road. Texas’ Special Kids focuses on helping restore hope to families who want to educate their special needs kids at home. The Lord has taught us many things along the way, and we are not finished yet, but we felt a calling to share what we have learned with others, and we do that through this ministry.

The second stepping stone was making a connection with my special kid. In our work with other families, I have heard far too many moms say that their husbands and dads are stuck in the denial stage and refuse to “connect” with the special needs child. Dads, you must step up to the plate and get involved! You are the spiritual head of the entire household, and you must get past your own grief and the death of the dream and connect with your kid. Raising typical kids is tough enough, but if you add the extra needs of a disabled child, you raise the bar considerably. Learn what you can about the disability, for knowledge might dispel any fears you may have about your interactions.
As you connect with your special kid, you climb the third step that allows you to focus on the child’s strengths. Autism has not kept my son from loving life. He is very affectionate, caring, and sensitive. He is learning reading and math, and he loves to draw. Every child, no matter his “disability,” has a special gift from the Lord. Stop looking at what your child cannot do and focus on what he can do, and then build on that toward greater success. Find that special talent and look for ways you can foster and encourage the development of that gift.

The fourth, look for ways to stretch your child. Never let a label hold him back. If he can help with household chores, cook, take out the trash, wash his laundry—whatever the task—it will help include the special child in the regular life of the family and teach skills that are useful later in life. If the child shows an interest in sports, let him try. My son asked to play baseball like his brother one spring. We signed him up, but after the third practice he announced very clearly that he did not like baseball and did not wish to continue. Setting my pride aside, I granted his wish, and instead focused on the fact that he was willing to try something new.

Most importantly, pray for this child. Pray for his salvation, his challenges in life, his successes, and his healing. Lead your family with a model of Christlikeness, love your wife (I acknowledge that my wife works much harder than I do), and pay special attention to the unique needs of the siblings of the special needs child. The role to which you have been called is not always easy, and you must allow the Lord to be your strength and your wisdom. With that game plan, you and your family will be healthy and strong.

Read more about Doug Arnold…