Dr Pamela Prince Pyle

Supporting Special Fathers

Dad-to-dad encouragement for fathers of children with special needs

Guest Post by Diane Woerner

Ours is a world where fathers who are willing to raise their children are a diminishing breed. This trend is exacerbated by things like general societal disdain, the systematic indoctrination of children to disrespect their parents, and various other cultural and even legal disincentives. These converge to degrade what should be a role of great honor into something many men avoid or at least significantly struggle with.

Among the men who are willing to embrace their calling, there is a subset of fathers who face the additional challenge of raising children with special needs. Without exception, the discovery of abnormalities in their child brings a complex array of emotions, including grief, guilt, fear, and overall helplessness. These are natural and not easy to move beyond.

There is, however, one feature of this challenge that does not need to continue, and that is a sense of loneliness. There are literally tens of thousands of these “special fathers” in our country, and the number is growing. The Center for Disease Control reports that an estimated 17% of children between the ages of three and 17 have one or more developmental disabilities.

These disabilities represent a variety of issues, including genetic or chromosomal deficiencies, pregnancy complications resulting in harm to the baby, undetected or untreated problems incurred by newborns, severe physical injuries during childhood, and the neurodiversities represented generally within the autism spectrum. These result in limitations to cognitive and verbal capacities, physical mobility, emotional stability, and social interactions. They may bring life-threatening possibilities such as seizures, or even the horror of a terminal diagnosis.

On a day-to-day basis, these conditions translate to what can be a wearying sequence of medical exams, hospital stays, behavioral upsets, financial stresses, and the inevitable questions about the future. Will my child be able to learn? Can he develop meaningful skills and social relationships? Or the big one—what will happen to her when I’m no longer here?

Gratefully, the United States is one of the few nations that has intentionally created impressive social, educational, and economic avenues of support for special needs families. But it often takes time for a father to realize, upon receiving the child’s diagnosis, that this isn’t something he can fix. Instead, he has to transition from fixer to engager, and that’s a challenge only other men who have been there can fully understand.

That’s why the 21st Century Dads Foundation launched the Special Fathers Network in 2017. Among their other services, they offer a unique dad-to-dad mentoring program using a personalized matching process. Today there are hundreds of mentor dads who are eager to come alongside new special needs fathers to share the wisdom they’ve gained “on the ground,” walking through the experiences they’ve had with their own children.

In a world where the definition of manhood and even the concept of family itself are under continual assault, men who find themselves confronted with the tough and tangible realities of life don’t need arguments and theories and ideologies—they need buddies. That’s where organizations like the Special Fathers Network can step in with practical and proven support. They too aren’t fixers, but they practically model the engagement that in the end can greatly benefit special dads and the very special families they lead. 

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