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What a Barber Taught Me about Raising My Son
by Tom Fields-Meyer
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| May/June 2012

People often ask me which of the many professionals my wife and I have consulted about our son Ezra has taught me the most. A doctor? A therapist? A teacher? They are often surprised to hear the answer: a barber.

As a toddler Ezra—like many children with autism—seemed uncomfortable in his own body. He would flee from noisy rooms, hands pressed against his ears. Even the gentle hum of a drinking fountain’s motor could frighten him. The texture of clothing so irritated him that he would often strip spontaneously at neighbors’ homes or the supermarket.

When he was three I decided it was time to tame his unruly head of straight, brown hair. He squirmed out of the chair in the hair salon, so I sat down, holding him in my lap.

“Noooo!” Ezra screamed at the woman wielding the scissors. “Don’t touch my hair!”

Despite her attempt to win him over with a lollipop, Ezra resisted, eventually grabbing her scissors and tossing them to the floor. I muttered an apology, paid the bill, and trailed after my son out the door.

That night after Ezra finally fell asleep, my wife finished the haircut. For more than a year, she maintained that practice, doing her best to trim his locks while he dozed.

Then someone recommended Hugh, the special-needs barber. I had to drive half an hour to get to the salon, a simple, stark shop with one thing that delighted Ezra: a basket of plastic dinosaur toys. While we waited, Ezra sat on the floor lining up the creatures in patterns, just as he did at home. Then he sat on the red chair, and Hugh—a stout, balding man—sprinkled talcum powder in Ezra’s hand.

“Now, my friend, I’m going to put some of this on your neck, so it’s not so itchy,” Hugh explained.

Before each step in the process, he offered Ezra a warning: “My friend, I’m going to comb your hair now. That okay?” Before he spritzed Ezra’s head with water, he gently sprayed some into my son’s palm.

“Don’t cut my ear off!” Ezra cried at one point, ducking. “You’re going to cut my ear off!”

Hugh calmly took Ezra’s little hand in his, showing my son how to hold his own ear flap down. Each time he spoke to Ezra, he used the same phrase: my friend.

Hugh told me he’d once worked in a children’s hair salon where the other employees were frightened to work with children who posed challenges. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “They’re just people.

At one point, Ezra got so antsy that he let his body go limp and slid from the chair. “Come on!” I said, trying to coax him back, but the barber waved me off. “He just needs a second,” he said. He waited calmly while Ezra carefully placed the dinosaurs in a line. Then my son immediately hopped back in the chair.

“Okay, ready,” Ezra said.

Before long, Hugh had finished the haircut. Holding Ezra’s hand, I walked out into the sunny afternoon, my son with the best haircut of his life, and me with lessons for a lifetime of parenting: be patient; follow the child’s lead; explain what’s going to happen next; treat the child with love. And this: they’re just people.

Adapted from Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism and Love from His Extraordinary Son by Tom Fields-Meyer. Published by arrangement with New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Tom Fields-Meyer, 2011.

Tom Fields-Meyer, an author and former senior writer for People, lives in Los Angeles with his wife Shawn and their three sons. He speaks nationally about parenting and blogs at followingezra.com.


The Lies that Need Not Haunt Us
by Nicholas Saari, DDS

Three years ago my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. As a result, I struggled with four lies regarding my situation—lies I told myself—that depressed me and paralyzed me as a father. These lies stripped away my self-confidence, masculinity, the joys of fatherhood, and almost the bonds of marriage.
Today, by grace, I am free to find joy in fatherhood. If you are a father entwined in similar circumstances, you may have lies that haunt you. Here are my specters—shared in the most humble hope that you too might find freedom in the truth.

Lie #1: My child’s disability is my fault. After all, I’m Dad; I need to find out what I did wrong.
Truth: For three years, I sought a time machine. I wanted to change my wife’s traumatic childbirth, avoid allergens, begin therapies sooner. But this cannot be done. Our child’s disability is not our fault any more than the tsunami that strikes unsuspecting shores—so, find blessings in tribulation, press forward in hope and never look back.

Lie #2: At this time my child needs my love more than my wife does.
Truth: My responsibility as a man is first to my marriage and second to my child—even if my child has special needs. A stable marriage provides security for our children at a time when the world feels insecure. If our marriage is fortified, the relationship becomes a safe haven for a child whose sensory processing, behavior, and emotions are on unsteady ground. Love has no maximum output; it is flower pollen limited only by how hard the wind blows.

Lie #3: No one understands what I’m going through, and no one wants to hear about it.
Truth: There are thousands of men walking a similar path. I simply refused to find them. Once I reached out to men at church, online, and at therapies, it put my situation into perspective. By sharing our failures and successes, we armed one another through empathy, encouragement and acceptance.

Lie #4: I’ll never know what it’s like to be a real dad.
Truth: Measuring fatherhood, not by the world’s standards, but by the little miracles embedded in quality time with my son, changed my life. Every day became a success, even if it was accidental eye contact because I balanced a Hot Wheels car on my head. I didn’t care about my son being a star ball player anymore; I just cared about finding that hidden word or smile. And because of those small gifts, I cried, prayed, and rejoiced over my son more than any typical dad is capable of. That’s as real as fatherhood gets.

Dejection need not be our experience as fathers of children with special needs. I encourage you to identify the lies you believe, dad. Then open up to your wife, other fathers, or even a stranger. Lies are like monsters in a dark room. Once you turn on the light and see them for what they are, they become little more than an obstacle to stub your toe on. Sometimes we just need another person to lead us to the light switch.

Nicholas Saari is a general dentist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His son is diagnosed with an epileptic disorder and PDD-NOS. He blogs about his family life at donteatus.com.


Like Dad
by Mark Osteen, PhD

My twenty-two-year-old son Cameron is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum. As a teenager he often acted in ways that mystified his parents.

One of his more puzzling (and frightening) behaviors was a penchant for sitting on the street in front of our house. Sloping downward at a fairly steep grade, the road overlooks part of our neighborhood; we speculated that Cam enjoyed the wide vista. He also loves long rides in the car, so squatting in the street may have been his way of protesting when he had to stay home. Fortunately there is little traffic on our street; nevertheless, this behavior baffled and frustrated my wife and me.

One Sunday he was particularly intransigent about remaining in the road: we coaxed; we pleaded; we tried to bribe him
(“If you come inside you can have ice cream”); we threatened; we tried to ignore it, on the theory that if we didn’t react, he’d decide it wasn’t any fun. Ultimately we just put chairs in the street and tried to wait him out. But when darkness began to fall, I got worried.

“Hey, Cam, want to come inside and watch a video?” I asked.

He didn’t even look up. I heaved a sigh, then went into the house to grab something to read. When I opened the door to return, I saw Cam walking up the driveway, holding his mom’s hand. As soon as he spotted me, he stopped; I ducked back into the house to watch from the window.

The light dawned on me: road-sitting was a way to defy his dad. I thought back to my own teen years, when I had rebuffed my father’s attempts to hang out with me, and criticized his every move. Was this so different?

One night recently I was resting in my favorite recliner, reading a magazine, when I got up to take a phone call. A few minutes later I peered into the living room: there was Cam, sitting in my chair. In his hands was the same issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest I had been reading. He thumbed through it, staring intently at each page. He can’t read, so he couldn’t know it’s a magazine about autism. The brightly colored pages—some with photos of people like him, others showing picture exchange communication systems (PECS) and treatments—may have caught his eye. Perhaps it all seemed familiar to him.

Or maybe he was thinking: I’m going to figure out once and for all what Dad sees in these magazines. Whatever his motive, the sight put a huge smile on my face. Right then I remembered that when I’d reached my twenties, suddenly my dad hadn’t seemed such a dork. Apparently Cam has arrived at the same conclusion: it’s okay to be like dad.

This incident reminded me that beneath the “behaviors” and the disability is a young man like other young men—a guy trying to forge his own identity, using his dad as a foil.

Mark Osteen is professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author of One of Us: A Family’s Life with Autism and the editor of Autism and Representation.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.



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