Autism Moms and Dads-Interview #4

One of the blessings of being director of Faith Inclusion Network, is being able to reach out to FIN friends around the country and share in our projects. Many thanks to a wonderful FIN friend from New Jersey, Ms. Anne Masters, Director of the Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ,  for sharing my request for an interview with autism moms and dads with the families in the Newark Archdiocese. Mr. Tim Craig generously responded to this invitation for an interview. Thank you Tim for being so open and honest. We love to hear from the autism dads and open our arms to another FIN friend in New Jersey! Happy Easter, and thank you for sharing about your beautiful son, Clinton.

Interview #4-Tim Craig

Clinton Craig

Question: How old was your child when they diagnosed with autism? Can you share how you felt when you received that diagnosis?

 Tim: Clinton was about 27 months old when we received the diagnosis of classic autism.  Like many autistic children, he had perfectly normal development until age two (he had around 75 words and played and interacted with other toddlers in our Greenwich Village neighborhood normally). When my wife and I returned from our first trip without him since he was born (a week in Mexico), we noticed that he had stopped using his words, was not making eye contact, and was isolating from other children. In the classic sense that parents blame themselves, I thought he was “punishing” us for leaving him. Our pediatrician sent us to an ear, nose and throat doctor and neurologist, and when everything checked out fine, the neurologist referred us to a psychiatrist.  After visiting with and observing Clinton for about 45 minutes, we came back a week later and received the diagnosis.

To say that we were devastated is a huge understatement.  We knew virtually nothing about the developmental disorder – my wife was in tears the entire night.  We were due to go on a vacation in Vermont, near where we had both gone to college at Dartmouth in Hanover, NH, and I went to the library stacks and read everything I could find about autism.  I joked that I probably spent more time there that weekend then I did as an undergrad!  We were very fortunate in that our psychiatrist knew the author of the book “Let Me Hear Your Voice,” the story of a woman who had two children recovered from autism through intensive behavioral therapy, and, after talking with the author, we immediately started Clinton on a program of behavioral therapy at that early age.

Question: How has living with autism affected your family? (immediate or extended)

Tim: The first immediate affect that Clinton’s diagnosis had was our move to New Jersey (although I continued to work in New York City).  At that time NYC had little to offer in terms of specialized schools for autistic children.  We ended up in Maplewood, New Jersey, and Clinton’s first school was in Montclair, New Jersey.  It also affected our decision not to have more children (my wife comes from a family of eleven kids!), as my wife was 37 by then, and we knew the odds of having another autistic child were increased.  More importantly, we realized that taking care of Clinton was going to be more than enough of a challenge as it was.

In terms of extended family, it was difficult for us that both of our extended families (for the most part) were back in Michigan, 600 miles away.  Many other parents of autistic children had the benefit of extra help from extended family that lived nearby.  However, my wife’s sister who lived in Vermont did visit and help out often, and whenever we went back to Michigan we were able to get a bit of a break. Emotionally, our families offered a lot of valuable support.

Question: What is currently your biggest challenge as an autism dad?

Tim: I feel like our biggest challenges are behind us.  Clinton experienced a lot of problematic behaviors with the onset of adolescence (breaking windows, breaking any glass or ceramic object he could find, self-injurious behaviors and hitting others) that made for some really rough times.  Although every once in a while one of the old behaviors will flare up, he has seems to have mellowed as he has gotten older (I am sure that the medication he has been taking has helped).

Probably the biggest challenge right now is finding things for him to do that interest him; if left alone, he will just “stim” on watching videos (yes, video tapes on a VCR!) or listening to his cassette tapes (yes, on a “Walkman” – we should buy stock in eBay!). He loves to hike in the outdoors, and in the winter he plays on the special needs hockey team the New Jersey Daredevils (have to give a plug to this great organization – Clinton has been with them for over 12 seasons). In the summer he loves swimming in our local pool, although not as much as he used to.  So I would say our biggest challenge is to find things for him to do that he enjoys and that engage him in a positive way.

Question: What is currently your greatest joy as an autism dad?

 Tim: As corny as it may sound, just watching Clinton smile and experience joy.  He has the greatest smile and laugh – they only seem to disappear when a camera is pointed his way!  I am also so proud of him when he is able to order for himself at a restaurant (his speech is very hard to understand – it’s frustrating for me and his mom, because we know what he is saying, but others just cannot pick up on it most of the time), or say the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.  Really my greatest joy is just getting to spend time with him – when I was working at a law firm or for a corporation in the city, I really did not have that much time to spend with him and I really regretted that.  Now I feel like I am much more of a part of his life, and I would not trade that for anything in the world.

Question: Has autism affected your faith? If yes, how so?

Tim: Autism has made me more humble and grateful for all of God’s gifts.  Our church has been so welcoming to Clinton – they have accepted him as he is, as one of God’s children.  Two of my proudest moments as a dad have been when Clinton received his First Communion and Confirmation, and that would not have been possible without the kindness, acceptance and understanding of our church (St. Joseph’s of Maplewood).  So often people have come up to me after Mass and praised me for being such a great father, just by observing me with Clinton during the service (he likes to sit right up front, in front of the choir and organ!).  It always embarrasses me, and I tell them I am just doing what any father would do.

So yes, autism has deepened my faith and given me more reason to give Him glory and praise.  Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and I look forward to celebrating this joyous day with Clinton, the greatest joy of my life (along with my wife – she might read this!).

Question: Is there anything else you would like to share about being an autism dad?

Tim: Being an autism dad has been a challenge, but it has paled in comparison to the challenge(s) my wife has faced. After Clinton’s diagnosis, she switched careers, and received her teaching certificate in behavior analysis, and for the last several years has worked in early intervention with the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Program through Rutgers, going into the homes of 2-year olds and using the same behavior modification techniques that helped our son.  So it has been autism 24/7 for her for quite some time, which is a really tough road to travel.

While our son is not one of the lucky few who were completely “recovered” from the disorder, and he will always need assistance and constant supervision in living on a day-to-day basis, it has been wonderfully rewarding to see his progress and to watch him grow into a young man.

In this Autism Awareness Month, I pray that we will someday find a cause, and eventually a cure, for this disorder.  In the meantime, I will continue to try to be the best “autism dad” I can be for Clinton.