Presume Competence, Even When You’re Not Entirely Sure (a cautionary tale)
Forward: Hostage to Silence is a celebration of Brady’s newfound voice. It is meant to educate, uplift and celebrate. But like all Marvel movies, there is an Origins story. This is mine, the father of Brady. Though emotionally heavy (apologies in advance), it is nonetheless a celebration of how far Brady has come… and, hopefully, me as a father, too.
Before he found his voice through facilitated communication, Brady presented few clues about what was in his mind. He was my sweet mystery. Almost nonverbal and hardly ever one to make eye-contact, Brady continues into his teen years to prefer television programming designed for toddlers. (It turns out this penchant for Sesame Street is not entirely unusual in the autism community, but I was unaware of this factoid.)
What I am about to admit shames me to no end, but if it helps fathers in similar situations, it’s worth it.
Because I was looking at Brady through a lens informed only by the visual clues I could gather…
I assumed my son was mentally diminished.
What’s worse, because the world can be cruel to those with special needs, I often wondered if, and even hoped that he was blissfully unaware of his circumstances. He seemed incredibly happy at all times, and so I thought, “Perhaps it is better not to be self-aware and never long for what you can’t have.” I think this assumption somehow gave me solace, because, in this state of mind, Brady would never feel heartache.
I did not know if or to what degree he was mentally impaired, but it did not matter. My love for him was and continues to be boundless. And because we, the parents of autistic children, often overcompensate, it was my relentless mission to let him know how much I love him and how proud he makes me. But in the back of my mind, I didn’t know if any of it was getting through. I wondered if the concepts of love and pride were too abstract for him.
Oh, how wrong I was on all accounts. It turns out the quest for my approval was and continues to be a central theme that dominates the typing that Brady directs to his father.
A few examples…
Two years ago:
(The first sentence Brady ever typed for me, in response to the question, “What do you want your father to know about you?”)
just so you can see me smart
breakthrough real brady. time to be who i want you to see me as. me smart yes. the deep part of me. im you dad to joke but also sensitive. we are similar.
(A Christmas card to his dad. For context, Brady referenced a recent father-son “trip” to the Colorado mountains.)
dad. stay. try to be son who makes you proud. trip was best. you seeing smart brAdy true greatest day of life. you freed shame i held. now world is alive. love brady.
(Dad follow-up: What was your shame?)
yes i was not heard you saw dumb. brady. i yes was shameful i felt like autism was my fault.
(“What question do you want to ask your dad?”)
yes day to ask what did you think when you heard you were having a son and did autism ruin it.
… and finally, May 2019:
(Our topic of conversation was why Brady refused to practice the facilitated communication technique with me at home.)
dad id really pretend i want to change but im fearful of you seeing failure if im not less autistic after typing for so long.
maybe im the one who waits for me to be less autistic.
(After I stressed that he is not defined by autism and that I am not waiting for him to be “less autistic,” our coach asked Brady what it would be like to be able to type with Dad at home.)
cry to think of me typing with dad freely. good.
Is it nature or nurture that wires the minds of young sons to seek their fathers’ approval? I’m not sure, but in Brady’s case, I whole-heartedly hope it is the former. If not, I fear it means that despite never, ever verbalizing to Brady my suspicion that he was mentally diminished… I somehow made him feel it. And that means despite all of my years protecting him, and heaping mounds of love and encouragement on him, to some degree I failed him as a father. This is a pain I may never get over, but it is also one that drives me forward to be a better dad.
Fathers, I have learned the hardest way the importance of always presuming competence in your children, even and especially if you can’t see it today. Chances are tomorrow they, too, will find their voices like Brady.
You don’t want to regret your past assumptions and subconscious actions like I do now.