I have two amazing kids. My son, Eli, is 11 and my daughter, Peyton, is 9. I didn’t name them after the famous quarterback brothers, but I lie to people all of the time and tell them that I did. Typing that out makes me feel a little bad for lying, but I usually say “Ha. I’m just kidding”.  But enough about names. I want to talk about being a dad.

Parenting is much different than what I expected. I can’t really tell you exactly what I expected though. I just expected normal.

I expected tickle fights on the living room floor, little league games on Saturday afternoons, and conversations about meaningless details in cartoons. I expected my kids to have best friends, slumber parties, and to talk to the cashier at the supermarket. Now, there are dozens of reasons why my kids aren’t normal, but the biggest reason is they are autistic.

Autism kind of snuck up on us. We saw some delays in our kids, but we didn’t want to believe anything could be wrong with them. Maybe we feared something being wrong with them and chose to ignore the signs, but eventually the diagnoses came down, and the “special needs” label was stamped on my family. I had no idea what to do or where to turn, but one thing was for sure… parenting would be much different than what I expected.

As you can probably imagine, finding out your kid has special needs is a big pill to swallow. Finding out both of your kids have special needs is a hurt that I had never experienced. It was like seeing my hopes and dreams slowly sinking into the ocean. And there was nothing I could do about it.

The number of emotions, questions, and doubts I felt could fill the pages of a library. Well, maybe a small library in a town of 300 people, but you get the point. My world was officially rocked. I began to wonder if Eli would ever be able to throw a ball with me. Would he ever drive a car? Would I get to dance at Peyton’s wedding? Would the Jones family name end with my kids?

I’ve had many ups and downs since becoming a dad, but over the last several years I’ve been able to turn a corner and see the glass half full. Even in the midst of difficult circumstances, our family continues to find hope and peace. People ask me all the time, “How do you deal with everything? How do you find peace through autism?” And this is what I tell them:

1. Avoid the blame game

There have been times in my life when I needed to identify the source of a problem to learn something or make a change. This should not have been one of those times. I spent two years of my life playing the blame game with my wife. Was this my fault? Her fault? Maybe we weren’t supposed to get married. Was God mad at me for something? This was unhealthy reasoning, and it made our circumstances even more difficult because I was looking for causes everywhere I turned. I thought I would find relief if I knew why this happened. I thought I could fix my kids if I could find out the cause. However, in the midst of looking for someone or something to blame I came to a realization: My kids had become a problem to solve instead of children to love. 

I don’t want my kids growing up feeling like they need to be fixed. I want them to know they are beautiful, unique, life-giving, and amazing just the way they are.

2. Attitude is everything 

A few years ago, nothing bothered me more than judgmental, glaring looks in the supermarket. In fact, we got to the point where we really didn’t go into public with our kids unless we had to. Many people don’t understand children with special needs and how they are different from other kids. For instance, one day my wife took our son out to eat with her mom . . .Eli was having a rough day and was being really loud. In the middle of their meal, a man walked up to their table as he was leaving and said, “If you can’t control him, find someone who can.” Can you imagine how that felt for my wife? I’m glad I wasn’t there because I would have been forced to try out all of those WWE wrestling moves I grew up watching.

Those encounters hurt, and it felt like the words and looks we got were personal attacks on my family. However, I’m learning I can’t control how people react to my kids, but I can protect my heart. And I can control my own words and thoughts. This has been one of the most character building things I’ve experienced. Seeing someone judge one of your children and choosing to give them grace isn’t easy. I’ve found the more grace I give externally the more peace I have internally.

A lot has changed in my heart since I became a dad. At one time, I thought autism was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Now, I see it as one of the best. I KNOW THAT SOUNDS CRAZY, but it’s true.

Autism has helped me become a much better father. I celebrate and value the small and seemingly insignificant steps of progress that many parents overlook.

Autism has helped me become a better husband. Once I began to partner with my wife through autism, it changed our relationship. We have identified common goals, created clear roles, and we constantly encourage each other.  Some days we are in the clouds and some days we are in the trenches, but we are always together.

It’s true, parenting is much different than I expected, but parenting two wonderfully special kids has made me into the man that I am. And for that, I will be forever grateful.