On Being an Autistic Father


This week a major boycott erupted over the book To Siri With Love, in which a mother notes that she plans to have her autistic son sterilized. The autistic community spoke out vehemently against the idea. We are, of course, anti-eugenics and this defines eugenics. But there’s a big reason that it outrages me and it’s in that picture up there.

My name is Austin Shinn and at the end of this month it will be 20 years since my diagnosis on the spectrum. At the end of this week it will be 18 months since that beautiful child Lola Faye Shinn entered my life. During the day, I am a full time caregiver to Lola. I am as much a father to Lola as a man can be and I am writing this to defend the idea of autistic parents.

To say the least, I am utterly in love with the job. Most of my day is spent playing with Lola, keeping her fed, changing her diapers, taking her on errands. My life is the normal dad life with the exception that I spend more time than a lot of men. However with my calm temperament I feel like I’m unusually well suited to it.

And how can I not love it? Lola is a smart, hyper little lady bear who constantly surprises me. She’s vocal and though I can’t yet grasp wha she says, I get that she’s reaching out to me. I love chasing after her at the park. I love reading to her. Being a dad gives me a purpose.

There’s an order to it too. Lola has breakfast and a new diaper when she wakes up. She goes out for a bit between 9-11. She goes down for a nap at 11:30 after a good lunch. She has a snack afterwards. Her day is orderly.

Sure, there are issues. She gets sick so I have to deal with that. She has trouble sleeping so we confront that. There are times the schedule doesn’t work. She can be stubborn. These are all normal things though and being autistic has not a thing to do with it. All parents deal with these crises. Why else is Baby Blues so beloved?

I look at being an autistic parent like this: it’s irrelevant. There are tons of people who aren’t suited to being a parent who are neurotypical. They put their kids far down the list of their concerns, while I put Lola at #1 all the time. They take their kids where they don’t belong. They neglect them. I don’t do these things.

My autism hasn’t kept me from going to college. It hasn’t kept me from getting a job. It hasn’t kept me from getting married. It hasn’t kept me from an independent life. Why should it, which is really a way of describing my mindset, stop me from being a dad?

I’m mad at the idea that we can’t be decent parents because it goes again to the need to view us as damaged, nonfunctioning people. Yes, I have the occasional meltdown though I take caution not to have one in her presence. But I’m in therapy and on medication to treat these things while there are a great number of people who aren’t actively working to improve who they are who are parents. I am a functional human!

Then there’s how I interact with Lola. That’s a magical bond and there are ways I think autism might even help. Since so much of Lola’s communication is nonverbal, I’ve learned to “learn” her. I know what she’s thinking and feeling. Lola also gets through the touch barrier. I love it when she crawls all over me. It’s affection even when she jams her hands in my face.

Am I able to be Lola’s dad because I’m “high functioning” or because I’ve adapted? Probably. But I had help. Based on who I was at 13, I never could’ve considered I’d be here. The lesson in my story isn’t to see the value in the useless functioning labels but to see what proper treatment gets you.

So in the end I have to reject the premise that we can’t be parents. I’ve never been better at anything else in my entire life.