How I learned to let go of the urge to 'fix' my son

"To me, Jack was my next handyman project."
"To me, Jack was my next handyman project." Photo: Stocksy

The last thing I do before bed is sneak a glimpse of the children.

I usually check on my daughter, Charlie, first. At seven, she is the perfect one. Top of her class and beautiful. I pause just long enough to kiss her on the cheek, knowing she'll be fine no matter what life throws at her.

Then I check on her five-year-old brother, Jack. Maybe because he has autism, I spend a little longer. In the darkness, I listen to his breath or stroke his forehead. In these moments, I am choked by love and intense anxiety.

Two years ago, my American-born wife, Jami, and I sold our house in Australia and moved to Colorado. Until then we just thought Jack was a late starter. People told us not to worry, that boys matured more slowly than girls. But on arriving in the US, I was struck by how far behind Jack was from his new peers. The American kids were confident and loud. By comparison, Jack, then approaching four, hardly said a word, particularly among new people. While he understood almost everything, he only spoke in three- or four-word phrases: "I want a drink", "Where's my Play-Doh?"

In a shopping mall bathroom with Jack one day, I pressed the button to start the hand dryer. It was as if I'd started an earthquake. He began to scream, covered his ears with his hands and ran and cowered behind the toilet. I remember feeling shocked as I yanked him out and carried him, still screaming, into the hallway. To this day, we can't go into a public toilet without Jack earnestly telling me: "Now don't do the dryer."

Jack began to display quirky habits. He was fascinated with the vacuum cleaner, pushing it around the house for hours, mimicking its sound. He loved to cut paper with scissors, which we would hide and he'd then find. Despite buying him superhero and soldier outfits, he preferred his sister's princess dress-ups.

These habits were endearing but there were others that were more troublesome. He'd sometimes push or hit other children. When he was frustrated, he'd slap his own head.

He'd refuse to get dressed and insist on eating each type of food on his plate with a different spoon.

One day just before school in the middle of the Colorado winter, I realised he wasn't in the house. We live in a wooded area on a mountainside and sometimes have bears go through our garbage bins. I eventually found him a few hundred metres from the house, cold and frightened. I put bolts on all the exterior doors and built a fence around our property.

Then we got a call from his preschool teacher, asking us to come in to see her. She felt Jack might be developmentally delayed and, with that, any notion that Jack would simply "grow out of it" evaporated. We entered a new world of paediatricians and learning plans, hospitals and waiting lists. The best advice we received was to get him into speech therapy. At home, Jami cleared off our book shelves and stacked them with educational games and flash cards. And we got in line for an autism screening at the local children's hospital. The wait was a year.

I was absolutely determined I was going to "fix" Jack and have him ready to start primary school like every other "normal" child. Within weeks I knew the finer points of apraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and Asperger's. I ordered books from Amazon and called anyone I could think of with a similar child.

To me, Jack was my next handyman project. I compartmentalised the thought that this might be a permanent situation, and pushed it to the back of my mind.

But in self-indulgent moments, I wondered: would we go camping, ride motorcycles or ever play backyard ball games, like I did with my father? Would I be that elderly parent you see and pity at the supermarket, with an adult child who is obviously mentally disabled?

Earlier this year, we finally got the call to come in for the autism screening. We were told what we already knew: yes, he was on the spectrum. However, they'd seen encouraging signs. He was present and cognisant, he made beautiful eye contact, and the speech therapy had helped. He had a good chance, they said, of leading a productive and independent life. We drove away from the hospital with mixed feelings.

This past northern summer, Jack has undergone intensive therapy and the hard work seems to be paying off. He now speaks in long, albeit imperfect, sentences, and he no longer wanders off. He's very mechanically minded and watches me closely when I'm working on the house. If I'm not careful, he'll pick up a hammer and start dismantling the kitchen. He proudly repeats back to me the difference between a Phillips-head and flat-head screwdriver.

I know now that there is no "fix" when it comes to autism. My instinct to problem-solve has given way to acceptance. The best we can hope for is slow, steady progress.

I've also realised that Jack is who he is: an adorable, unique little boy. Romanticism about a Boy's Own Annual father-son relationship has been replaced by reality. I'll love him and be there for him no matter what might happen, or who he turns out to be.

On a recent morning, I took Jack to the end of our street to wait for his bus, which takes him to his new primary school with an autism unit. As we waited, we played a game of guessing the colour of the next car to come around the corner. Jack then hauled himself up onto my shoulders. In perfect, unbroken language, his sweet little voice piped up: "I like you, dadda."