Redefining the Father’s Role

  • Peter Dunlavey

    RDI® Program Certified Consultant

    Helping dads find their place in their child’s intervention

    Note: In writing on this topic, many different family situations come to mind.  There are families with both parents working full time, families lead by single parents, and those with the mother as the primary breadwinner while the father is the primary care giver.  This article focuses on families with a traditional setup – the father works full time outside the home, and the mother is the primary care giver for the children.  In Part 2 of this article, the other 3 family situations will be discussed.


                I am frequently approached by mothers with the question, “How can I get my husband more involved in our ASD child’s intervention?” One thing I can attest to about the many fathers that I’ve worked with is that in most cases dads are actually quite eager to be a larger factor in their child’s development; however they are often unsure of exactly what role they should play.   The time restrictions and demands of work usually leave little time for interaction with their children and they usually get only weekends and evenings – the ‘leftover’ time. Less exposure and interaction with their team of professionals leave many dads feeling incompetent and left out of the loop. I don’t have one generic solution that will work for every family, but I did want to talk about just a few ways in which fathers can make a larger contribution to the family remediation program.

    Complementary Roles

                One mistake I often see working fathers  make is to try to match the mother’s role stride for stride; attempting to fit a week’s worth of quality time with their child into just a few hours on the weekend.  While I applaud these fathers’ intentions and strongly encourage dads to take full advantage of the time they do have with their children, the hard fact is that there are truly are not enough hours in the day for dads to meet both their work obligations and keep pace with mom’s time with the child. Rather than trying to match the mother’s level of involvement, I typically counsel dads to instead look for ways to complement the mother’s role, providing critical back up and behind the scenes support that is essential to the program but may not always get done due to moms work overload.

    Admin Role

                While it’s not very romantic, the administrative duties associated with the care of a special needs child are considerable and often challenging.  Taking some of that load off of mom’s shoulders in this area will free up her time for more productive, therapeutic time with the child.  For working dads with inflexible time constraints, this is an area in which they can contribute during off hours when the child has already gone to bed or when he is on the road.  Data collection, materials prep, progress reports, IEP planning, scheduling appointments, binder management and upkeep, lesson plan preparations, funding & insurance reimbursements are all critical parts of your child’s remediation program.

                A father with even a moderate understanding of computers can provide an invaluable service to the overall success of the program in the form of report composition, online research, inter-family communications, online calendars, purchasing materials,  If there is a new technology that he has been using at work, he can explore how it can be used at home to enhance the child’s learning or facilitate home management tasks.

                Autism Interventions are increasingly utilizing video technology to connect families with professionals and educators, as well as serve as an invaluable learning tool for families.  One father I interviewed told me about that after he put his son to bed, he took it upon himself to review his wife’s video tapes of her daily therapies with their son, and then provide her with his written feedback, observations as well as data recording. If any videos needed to be submitted to the family’s professionals, he would edit, annotate and upload those videos to a site where the professional or other team members could securely view them at a later time. He would then make all of the camcorder preparations needed for the next day; making sure the tapes and hard disk drives were empty, charging the batteries, and preparing the tripod so that mom would be ready to the next morning.


                One of the most important roles a father can play in the family remediation is that of a personal coach to his partner; someone who can commiserate and inspire his wife when she is feeling discouraged by the everyday ordeals and setbacks.   Being the primary caregiver to a special needs child is a demanding, round-the-clock job and the physical and emotional fatigue that it involves can be overwhelming.   A husband who is aware of these pitfalls and can pick his spouse up and remind her of the larger picture will be greatly appreciated.

                In general, fathers tend to be a little more pragmatic than their children’s mothers and have a little easier time in distancing themselves from the emotional aspects of treating a special needs child; they are often better able to focus on the bigger picture.  Someone who can set goals for the family, track the progress of those goals and keep the family on track is an indispensable part of a successful program.

                A good coach will also provide a distraction to mom when she needs one.  Autism can quickly become a full-time, all-consuming career for mom if she isn’t careful, so it may be up to dad to help restore some balance to the family.  Dad should show her that it is okay to have a life outside of autism.  Encourage mom to meet regularly with those friends who don’t have an autistic child, or family members she has lost touch with.  Dads can make it a point to schedule some couples time that doesn’t involve the children.  Take her out to dinner or a movie, and vow to not talk about the kids all night. Lean on sitters, friends and grandparents a little more to give both parents some needed break time.

    Role Model

                Whether he wants to be or not, a father will serve as a role model for his child, and so it is up to each father to decide what kind of model he wants to be.  Will you be a caring, involved dad who takes the time to show your son the ropes?  Will you be the responsible breadwinner who provides for his family’s financial needs?   In any event, a father needs to be aware that ASD children – despite appearances – are quite aware and observe quite a bit more than they are typically given credit for.  Whatever person you appear to be in their eyes is the person they will unconsciously use to define what it means to be a man.

                Boys in particular need a strong male figure in their lives to emulate and model.  Fathers will be a source of information to their sons in ways that a mother never can.   Sometimes it is enough to simply BE with your child, not in a therapeutic capacity but to just be a pal or someone to hang out with. Let your child see who you are and how you do things.  And for those of you with daughters, keep in mind that they will eventually seek out men in their adult lives who remind them of you, so be aware.


                Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the vast majority of fathers that I’ve encountered are very eager to step up and become a greater influence on their child’s long term development.   Initiating this process could start with a heart to heart conversation as a couple, and writing down each parents’ vision for the family, strengths, weaknesses, priorities and obstacles, and identifying achievable and manageable goals.

    Part 2

    Note: In Part 1 of this article (Jan-Feb 2013 issue of ABAM), the role of the father was discussed with regard to families in which the father primarily works outside the home and the mother is the primary care giver to the children.  In this follow-up, the role of the father in other family setups is discussed.


    Dual Income Households

    A dual-income is almost a necessity in such an over-priced market as the San Francisco area, so much so that this category almost doesn’t qualify as non-traditional anymore.  In such a challenging environment, steps should be taken to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and family harmony is maintained.

    Role assignments:  Parents should have an honest and open discussion about the division of labor in the household, and come to an agreement on what each parent is responsible for.   For dual-income families in particular, every effort should be made to split the childcare, household and remediation duties equally, once the parents are home from work.  Keep in mind that this division cannot always be 50-50, that the demands of the job will require adjustments from time to time, so be sure to communicate often and accommodate each other as needed.

    Scheduling:  Miscommunications and unanticipated scheduling conflicts can result in missed appointments, loss of therapy time, loss of quality time as well as ignored and resentful NT siblings and spouses.  Dads can take the initiative to create a daily schedule or calendar that includes each parent’s professional and personal commitments as well as the child’s therapy-related appointments.   Many families that I work with swear by their online calendars like Outlook or Google Calendar.  These tools allow each family member to manage their own individualized schedules that can then be shared with other family members.   Most smart phones can now sync with these tools so the family schedule can be kept up to the minute.

    Communication: Parents should make an appointment (yes, put it in your calendar) to meet with their spouse for fifteen minutes every night after the kids go to bed,  to synchronize their efforts and learn what is going on in each other’s lives.   The meeting should include a discussion on what has been happening with the child’s therapies and should include any successes from the day, interactions with professionals and any new tips that were learned in relating to the child that the spouses might want to try.

    Flexibility:   Both parents should approach their employers about flexible time scheduling.  These days many employers are open to the idea of having an employee work extra hours on some days, and allowing them to leave work early on others.  This will free one or both parents up at various times to help out with appointments, therapies, driving, along with the regular student activities.  In many dual-income families, one parent leaves to work early and returns home early to be there for the kids after school, and get dinner started.  The other parent is there for the kids before school and returns later from work.


    Father-led Households

    The changing economy and family structure have lead to an increase in father- led households.  Many of the issues that I see in these families mirror those of mother-led households, however there are a couple of issues that are unique to this family structure and that both parents should be aware of.

    Show some understanding:  Dads need to keep in mind that while their wives may be fully happy being the primary breadwinner for the family, they may still harbor some resentful feelings towards the current arrangement.   Working moms often feel a great deal of guilt about not spending more time with their child, and they might even be coping with feelings of jealousy that their spouse is more successful in his new role than she might have expected.

    Dads should make an effort to keep mom in the loop on whatever is going on in their child’s life, and allow her to be a part of the process of the child’s remediation.  He might update her– Facebook, texts, emails, or even a Skype call – to let her know about the child’s accomplishments, challenges and successes during the course of the work day.

    Carry your weight:  Staying at home with the child all day is a demanding proposition, but it doesn’t give dads a free pass to dodge their share of the household duties. Dads should do their best to keep on the household tasks, and resist the urge to pass on to mom as soon as she gets home. The reduced marital stress will be worth the effort.  Depending on the child, dad might even be able to incorporate them into the daily chores, making it a therapeutic tool for the child and teaching them valuable life skills that they will need to live as independent adults.


    Single-Parent Households

    Recent studies show the rate of divorce among parents of children with ASD at about 24%, compared to a 13% divorce rate among families with neuro-typical children.   Children with autism in particular, need structure and routines in their lives order to maintain a sense of normalcy, so single parents need to put aside any personal issues and coordinate with their ex-partners to ensure a fluid transition for the child.


    Collaboration:   Inevitably each parent will have a differing opinion on how their child should be raised, so there needs to be a

    conversation on what each parent’s values are and what each parent wants for their child.  This ongoing communication should include each parent’s feelings towards particular interventions, treatments, professionals or educational settings.  Both parties need to enter this discussion with an attitude of compromise, listen to the other’s feelings and opinions and show flexibility in coming to a mutually acceptable agreement.

    Additionally, the parents should come to a consensus on what will be a fair and equitable distribution of duties.  Both parents should make every effort to live within the same school district as the child, so that both are able to share the logistical burdens of schools, daycare, doctor visits and therapy appointments.


    Create a support network:  Single parents shouldn’t be shy about leaning on, and accepting help from others.  Of course the extended family should be the first place they look for help; grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles all have an emotional connection to the child and so are the most likely to be there when the parent is in need.   Single parents should reach out and connect with other parents of special needs children in your area –single or married – and make it a point to communicate with them frequently.  It’s not always easy to find resources specific to special needs families, so the shared tips on accommodating babysitters, new programs or treatments, etc. can be invaluable.


    Get out of the house:  It is very easy for a single special needs parent to get caught up in the day to day rigors of raising an autistic child, and unwittingly become a prisoner in their own home.  A conscious effort should be made to prevent this by taking a break from autism now and then.  Looking up an old friend and getting together for a cup of coffee is a great start, as long as the conversation is devoid of any mention of autism.  Having the grandparents watch the child while the parent goes to a movie, is another good escape.  In order to be an effective guide in the ASD child’s life, the single parent needs to maintain a healthy frame of mind, so moms and dads need remember to take care of themselves as well.



    Regardless of the setup, every family needs to sit down, discuss, and devise a system that works for all family members, and one that provides an environment for the special child to thrive in.  Whatever the makeup of a family, nontraditional or otherwise, parents need to remember that there is truly no such thing as a ‘typical’ family, and strive to accept and celebrate their family’s own individuality and character. After all, as one of our clients put it, ‘Normal is over-rated!’

                Peter Dunlavey is a Relationship Development Intervention (RDI®) Program Certified Consultant and co-director of the CATCH Clinic in Redwood City.  As a parent coach, Peter guides families in the RDI methodology to help them develop and maximize their child’s intellectual capacity to succeed in truly reciprocal, meaningful relationships.

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