Why Are Dads Less Involved with Autistic Toddlers?

father and son on beach
father and son on beach. father and son on beach

Why are dads so often "second class citizens" when it comes to raising their autistic toddler?  Often, the reasons are built into our culture.  The reality is that, in general, moms bond most closely with infants.  This is usually linked to two causes.

First, of course, moms give birth and (in most cases) breast feed.  This physical necessity mean that mom really must spend a great deal of time in close contact with her infant child.

  While dad can cuddle, dress, and change an infant, there really isn’t a lot of logic to having dad wake up in the night for a baby he’s physically unable to feed!

Second, most women who are working are entitled to a reasonable amount of maternity leave (at least three months) whereas, at least in the United States, paternity leave is rarely as generous.  Thus, dad may go back to work within a week of a baby’s birth, while mom stays at home recovering from birth and bonding with the baby.

In quite a few cases, moms decide to actually stop working for a period of time in order to raise her young child – which, of course, means dad has no option but to stay at work. 

Many mothers take their babies out to participate in mother-child groups. Mommy and Me programs have expanded to include everything from fitness classes in which baby is a part of the action to baby play dates, library events, and so forth.

  The rare dad who does choose to stay home with a very young child while mom returns to work is likely to find it very tough to get involved with such programs as the one and only male!

As a result of these cultural norms, mom is usually the one who spends the most time with a baby.   She’s also the one who spend the most time with other same-age babies, whom she can observe up close.

  It’s mom who, therefore, has the time, experience, and knowledge to compare her child to others – and notice any apparent issues or challenges.

Once mom notices a difference between her child’s development and the development of other same-age children, she may bring the differences to dad’s notice.  But dad is unlikely to have much basis of comparison – after all, how many same-age infants is he likely to run into at work?  As a result, while he may believe that his partner’s observations are accurate, he may be less likely to become concerned (unless the differences are very severe and obvious).

Often, therefore, it’s mom who jumps on the Internet to explore possible explanations for her child’s apparent differences, delays, or unusual behaviors.  It’s mom who determines that her child really should be evaluated by an expert.  And it’s mom who actually chooses the expert, makes and keeps the appointments, and follows up on the doctor’s advice.

All too often, dad is a passive observer as all this is happening.

  In some cases, dad may be unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that his child has a significant developmental disorder.  But just as often (or perhaps even more often), dad has no clear role in the child’s evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment planning. He may come to an appointment or two, but mom has already taken the lead. 

By the time many dads have actually come to grips with his child’s issues, done some research on the subject, investigated options, and come to any conclusions, his partner may already have set up a program and gotten started with a course of treatment.  This puts dad in the position of being a second-tier partner in the process of parenting his autistic child.

It’s not always easy to avoid this scenario; much of it is built into our culture.  It is important, however, to notice dad’s exclusion when it happens – and to take action before dad begins to feel marginalized or mom begins to feel isolated or frustrated.  Dad’s involvement is critical; allowing a parent to become an invisible partner is never a good choice.

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