The Confessions of a Father of An Autistic Child

This is the face of an autism.

Hi, my name is Frank Priegue, I’m the father of an autistic child.  It felt good to write that.  This isn’t a deeply held secret, our family and friends are aware.  If you follow me on Instagram, I’ve included hashtags like #autism, #autismawareness, and #autismdads to my posts for over a year.  I’ve alluded to Cristian’s autism but never dedicated a post to this topic—until now.  This is Cristian’s official coming out as an autistic child.

Although greater awareness exists these days, few individuals without a relationship to someone on the spectrum know much about Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Before I became a parent, my only exposure came from the film Rainman.  I knew nothing of IEPs, Developmental Pediatricians, or District 75 schools.

Like many parents, I went through a stage of denial when Cristian was diagnosed.  My wife and I sat quietly with our mouths hanging open as we read the diagnosis.  How could our child be autistic?  He had a few eccentricities, which a specialist diagnose as sensory issues or developmental delays, but that doesn’t mean he’s autistic.  I convinced myself that autism is the flavor of the month diagnosis doctors are handing out in large numbers until the next one comes along.

Denial can be a potent concept.  You can justify anything if you repeat it enough—I know this because I did this with Cristian.  Esther and I are first-time parents of a delightful little boy.  He loves attention and admiration, rewarding those who played with him with a 1000-watt smile.  So when we noticed oddities, I easily justified them.

Cristian didn’t say his first words until well after a year, but so did I.  I didn’t speak until just before my second birthday.  I was a Stay at Home Dad for two years, working as a medical biller.  Cristian played with his toys or watched Sesame Street for a while I reviewed spreadsheets.  I kept convincing myself—he wasn’t receiving enough stimuli.

How can our child be autistic?

Cristian played by himself during story time at the local library and didn’t interact with the other kids during his My Gym class.  I thought it was odd he didn’t play with children he’s seen for several months.  The teachers told me many children less than a year old engaged in parallel play, so I didn’t think very much about it.  Cristian is an only child of older parents, we tried scheduling playdates with his cousins to socialize him, but they were 3 and 4 years older than him.

I was aware there were a few peculiarities making him different from other kids his age, but he was a healthy baby, his pediatrician assured of us this.  He scored high on the growth charts and he liked adults.  How could there be something wrong with him?

It became increasingly difficult to keep ignoring the obvious.  On a trip to Puerto Rico to introduce Cristian to the family did the differences become more apparent.  Esther noticed that he wasn’t exhibiting appropriate behavior for a year-old baby, as he played with cousins who were his age.

Despite Esther’s background as an early-intervention coordinator, I wasn’t totally convinced.  She was also a first-time mom, who worried if it was too hot or cold.  First-time moms worry about everything. It wasn’t until Cristian started rocking back and forth in his car seat with greater frequency or ran back and forth down the hallway in our home like he was running wind sprints that we decided to get him evaluated.

Being the parents of a special-needs child is challenging, but raising any child, is about meeting challenges when they arise, and giving the illusion that you have everything under control.  Don’t feel sorry for Cristian, he’s not feeling sorry for himself.  He’s a happy four-year old, who loves to run, play, and read books.  As his parents, all we ask for is patience, understanding and awareness.  Take the time to get to know him and be part of his world on his terms.  You might be surprised at what you see.

Share This:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

Baseball and Parenting

Cristian not quite grasping the concept of running the bases.

I’m a simple man with simple tastes.  Those who know me will say I love photography, running, a good cup of coffee, Esther, Cristian, and typewriters.  You can add a sense of humor that’s either funny or annoying, depending on who you’re taking to.  If they really know me well, they will also say, warm beer, the Hallmark Channel, college basketball, and winter are not my thing.

The three months between Super Bowl Sunday and the new baseball season are a sad time.  The excitement of March Madness and filling out brackets is lost on me.  After a cold winter one phrase gives me hope, pitchers and catchers report on February 14th.  Some have Punxsutawney Phil, but for me the start of Spring Training lets me know warm weather is coming soon.

Cristian and I at a Father’s Day game

I approach the beginning of a new baseball season with the same excitement of a young child waiting for Santa  Claus on Christmas morning.  Then again the 2019 season starts on March 28th, that’s like putting up Christmas displays on Labor Day Weekend.   My better half and I have taken Cristian to several games since he was a baby, and already have tickets to our first game this season.  I look forward to sharing my love of baseball with him as he gets older.

There are some who feel taking a four-year old to a New York Mets game is cruel and inhumane punishment.  I disagree.  As a Mets fan, he’s learning loyalty and you don’t always get everything you want in life at a young age.  If I wanted Cristian growing up with an overdeveloped sense of self entitlement—I’d take him to Yankee games.

I love baseball and since becoming a father, I noticed the similarities between baseball and parenting.  Teamwork and coaching are important components in both.

Baseball players spend the winter working with personal trainers before arriving at Spring Training complexes in Arizona and Florida.  Countless hours are spent on back diamonds learning new skills and refining existing ones.  Time spent fielding grounders, working on a new pitch, or learning a new position could make a difference when it comes to landing the last spot on a 25-man roster.

It’s the same with parenting.  The past few winters, Esther and I spent countless hours keeping Cristian engaged.  We enrolled him in My Gym classes, after school programs, and taking him to several children’s museums.

Last winter we invested in a Leap Frog DVD 3-pack, that paid dividends.  We spent hours watching the adventures of Tad, Leap, and Lilly, again and again and again.  The result, Cristian knows the alphabet backward and forward and he can read.  That’s not to say there weren’t a few dicey moments along the way.

One evening he proudly shared the newest word he learned with me.  It had four letters, started with F and ended in a consonant.  Worried that he may have learned this new word from Daddy, I asked him to repeat it.  Imagine my relief when he repeated it, adding ribbit ribbit.

I always found baseball to be a metaphor for life.  There is a chance for glory and individual accomplishment but you must never lose sight of the fact that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  My playing days are over, but if I raise a child who grows up to be a quality person, I did my job well.

My reaction when I realized the word was frog.
Share This:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

It’s A Christmas Miracle!

Christmas 2014, after pulling Santa’s finger.

It’s Christmastime once again, my better half’s favorite time of year. She enjoys spreading Christmas cheer to everyone around her whether they are feeling it or not. In that festive spirit, it’s time for the Priegue family’s annual exercise in futility — producing our annual Christmas card.

I’ve written about our annual family tradition and considering our history, set the bar low this year.  Although Cristian has been gotten into the Christmas spirit, telling us what he wanted from Santa weeks ago, and practicing the puppy dog look to get an extra gift or two from Santa, I’ve been here before. My goal was to get through this Christmas season without drinking too much bourbon. Considering how the last few years reminded me of Lucy holding a football for Charlie Brown, in the Peanuts comic strip, I’m glad I bought the big bottle.

We were working without a net this year. Last year, when we used a picture taken from Cristian’s birthday photo shoot for our card. We didn’t have that luxury this year. I made some beautiful images of our son over the past year, but none screamed Christmas. Drawing on our experience as project managers, Esther and I planned this year’s picture with care.

Success after four years and six boilermakers, we acheived our goal.

Esther chose the location and picked the wardrobe.  She found a small mall near home called Atlas Park and picked the slowest time of the day.  We all wore red tops, in case history repeated itself and we had to jump into the picture with Cristian.

I scouted the route from the parking garage to Santa’s workshop with the same attention to detail the Secret Service uses for the presidential motorcade. Planning for all contingencies, we detoured around toy stores, kiddie rides, or anything guaranteed to bring on a tantrum when we walked past it. I also brought a camera and threw a Festivus pole in the car in case were forced to improvise if the Santa picture didn’t go as planned.

Our fifth time was the charm.  Cristian didn’t have his usual deer in the headlights look.  I guess seeing countless inflatable Santa throughout our neighborhood prepared him for the real thing.  Crouching down and making silly faces gave us the patented 1000 watt smile we wanted.

Riding a winning streak, we went for the daily double. After leaving Santa’s workshop we headed to Home Depot to pick out our Christmas tree.  And the tradition continues…

Share This:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

Stop Calling Me The Babysitter, I’m His Father

Cristian running on the Coney Island Boardwalk

It was a Wednesday morning, which meant Cristian and I were off to Coney Island.  We weren’t going to the amusement park although I planned on taking him to Nathan’s for hot dogs.  Once upon a time, I was a Stay at Home Dad who worked part time as a medical biller.  Wednesdays meant delivering documents from a medical clinic in Brooklyn to my company’s office in Queens.

Squeezing Cristian’s stroller through the narrow hallway, we arrived at a small office where three women worked.  The office soon filled with a group of Eastern European women whenever I showed up with the baby.  One of the women turned and said, “How cute, you are babysitting,” in thickly accented English.

Although she was being polite, she didn’t realize she pissed me off.  At least she didn’t think I was Cristian’s grandfather — that happened later when we were playing on the boardwalk.  Yes, it was a memorable Wednesday.

Driving back on the Belt Parkway, I replayed the conversation in my head, again and again.  After the fifth or sixth time I asked myself, “Does she know better?”

The women in the office were similar in age and background to my family members when I was growing up.  The women in my family handled most of the childcare responsibilities, rarely getting help from their husbands.  In those days’ household roles were clearly defined, men were the providers, and women stayed home and cared for the children.  Some women worked, but it was besides their childcare responsibilities.

My male cousins and I were among the first generation sharing parenting responsibilities with their partners.  Times changed and many families need two paychecks to make ends meet.  This shared responsibility confused my aunts and uncles as they watched us feeding and dressing our kids.  The first time they saw my brother giving his daughter a bottle, you would have thought he was explaining nuclear physics.

I was a Stay at Home Dad for the first two years of my son’s life, and it irritated me when people thought I was doing it to help out my wife.  My experience with the woman in the office wasn’t the first time I heard the dreaded B-Word.

Parenting starts when your child is born — it’s what you signed up for.  Couples usually figure this out during pregnancy, those who don’t are in for a rude awakening.  A child needs both parents because raising a child is a team effort.

Cristian is my son — you can’t babysit your child — it’s called parenting.  Someone pays babysitters for their service.  It’s an important service, ask any parent in desperate need of a night out. Whether it‘s the neighbor’s teenaged daughter or an older woman, they are watching your children for a few hours but at some point they go home.

Cristian in Mommy and Me Class

Society has changed since I was growing up, and more parents are sharing parental responsibilities, but a double standard still exists.

A mom taking her kids to soccer practice is doing what’s expected of her, but when a dad does it, he’s babysitting..  With more women establishing themselves in careers and more men as Stay at Home Dads you wouldn’t think the concept was a still a novelty, but it is.

When I was an SAHD, women would offer the clueless dad advice on diaper changes or feedings while standing in the Target checkout aisle.  I almost expected them to ask if my wife knew I was out with the baby.

Although I’m no longer the only dad taking his child to a MyGym class or the playground, we still have a way to go.  My son and I were enrolled in a Mommy and Me class and more than once I’ve had to change his diaper in the back of my SUV because men’s restrooms are not always equipped with changing tables.

Does a double standard still exist?  My brother and discussed it in July at his daughter’s eighteenth birthday party.  To give further insight, my son celebrated his fourth birthday last month.

Share This:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

Young at Heart or Merely Delusional?

Do I look like his father or grandfather?

I spent my fiftieth birthday sitting in a movie theater on a humid Summer afternoon.  Waiting for the previews to start, I thought about my life, as I sat in air-conditioned comfort On that day, I was an unemployed project manager, preparing to reinvent myself for my next major project — fatherhood.

In addition to the afternoon matinee, Esther and I planned to see another movie later that evening.  I took advantage of the day knowing such opportunities would not exist in the next 60 days.

When Cristian was born four years ago, I was about twenty years older than the average new father. I didn’t feel my age, wasn’t delusional, or trying to trying to shave twenty years off my age to get more Tinder matches.  I just wanted to start a family.

When Esther and I announced we were expecting a child, I heard the phrase fifty is the new forty — a lot. That phrase always made me laugh.  It gave me images of buying a 1968 GTO without checking under the hood, or looking for rust.

Four years later, I’ve reinvented myself again, this time as an academic advisor at a college.  A few weeks ago, Esther and I were discussing our work schedules for the coming week.  My calendar was full of scheduled class visits at the college where I work. I mentioned the next day’s visit was with a younger guy, about my age. I wasn’t expecting the smirk she replied with.

Unlike other 50-Somethings, I don’t need this stuff.

The instructor wasn’t the Central Casting version of a college professor, a bearded white-haired gentleman, wearing a tweed blazer.  He was an active fifty-something, with two kids under six, who runs, hikes and snowboards.

Since that conversation, I wondered, if I’m the fit, active dad, I believe myself to be or just delusional.

I’m aware that I became a father at an age where many friends were sending their kids off to college. They were touring college campuses when I was finding the Baby First Channel and rediscovering Sesame Street.

I’ve always thought of myself as young at heart, with a younger maturity level.  I’m the one watching cartoons with Cristian on weekends.  When Netflix dropped the Minions from rotation, I immediately ordered the blu ray from Amazon.  I’d like to say I did it for him but…

Fifty-four years put some wear and tear on my body. The difference between me and the rusting fifty-year-old muscle car in the garage is, they are gentle miles.  I’m in decent shape, am not taking prescription medication, and don’t need a few cocktails to unwind after work.

Life has a way of creeping up on you. I remember when I looked great for my age. Then I was the guy who got the approving nods when friends checked out my fiancé. These days. I hope they don’t think Cristian’s my grandson.

My motto to this adulting stuff.
Share This:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin