What Are Tips for Fathering Your Child With Autism?

A father-child relationship is unique. Learn about the important role a dad plays in the life of a child with autism spectrum disorder, from experts at Henry Ford Health.

Very broadly speaking, moms have historically taken the family’s lead role in the day-to-day care of the children. But that’s all changing. Today, children with autism are also likely to experience the care of an involved father.

“It’s really evolving, and more fathers are taking on primary caregiver roles than ever before. Dads are becoming more involved in their child’s education and therapeutic interventions,” says Dr. Melissa Hendriks, M.D. She’s a child and adolescent psychiatrist who works with patients and families at Henry Ford Health’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD).

Research has long focused on moms, but studies show that dads can be just as effective as moms. “And, when they are involved, we see better outcomes for the whole family,” says Dr. Hendriks.

What unique benefits do fathers provide their child with autism?

Fathers tend to parent differently than mothers — and children benefit from both approaches.

“One good way that dads could interact with kids is through rough play and sports. There are some sources that say when you engage in physical play with a kid they grow up with more confidence,” says Sarah Peterson.

Growing up, Peterson was a keen observer of her father’s unique relationship with her brother, who has autism. She also works with fathers of children with autism in her professional role as manager and lead Board Certified Behavior Analyst at Henry Ford Health’s CADD.

Collaborative parenting is important to a child’s development, and kids learn from dad just as much as they learn from mom, says Peterson.

Dad play tends to be more directive and goal-oriented. Dads can lean into this physical play and use it as a jumping off point for connection and social interaction, says Dr. Hendriks.

By following their child’s lead, fathers can both teach their child to swim and share the social interaction of swimming (or riding a bike, playing catch and other games).

With an approach that lines up with their child’s developmental level, dads can help guide their child toward learning new skills, and that’s a good thing. Dads can meet their child where they are, while also fostering skill development, curiosity, and exploration. Follow your child’s lead. It’s important to know when to push and when to adjust expectations or break actions down to smaller steps, says Dr. Hendriks.

How does a father’s involvement and fun approach lead to learning?

When the experience is enjoyable for the child, that’s when learning happens. Dads can adopt a fun approach to building skills at home, says Peterson. “If your child is having fun, you can really work on skill building in so many different areas. You can work on daily skills and life skills like dressing and cooking,” she says.

Model food prep skills and invite your child to participate, and pretty soon you’ll have a daily helper in the kitchen. Figure out what your child is interested in and let that be your guide.

How can dad be involved in ABA therapy?

Taking part in parent and caregiver training is an ideal way for dads to learn what their child is working on during ABA therapy. “Parent training will help dads know what to work on at home,” Peterson says.

Being involved in your child’s therapy allows you to learn about interventions firsthand and empowers dads to carry these out at home. This can be just as effective as practicing with the clinician in the clinic, says Dr. Hendriks.

Your child’s treatment team should encourage the father’s engagement, so make sure dad is there consistently and working collaboratively.

“Being open to discussing how their kid is doing at home, how their kid is doing in therapy, what goals they have for their kid that they’d like to see ABA therapy working on. All of these are important because we want to take parent goals into consideration when developing the child’s plan,” Peterson says.

If dad has a goal for spending time on a particular activity with their child, the therapy team can create steps to make that happen.

Teamwork — that includes both mom and dad — sets family members up for success, she adds.

Expertise from Henry Ford Health Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Learn more at henryford.com. Find more articles like this at Metro Parent’s Your Top Kids Health Questions Answered!

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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