A Dad To 8-Year-Old Twin Boys With Learning Differences Shares His Tips For Other Special Needs Parents.

Michael McWatters is Director, Experience Design at TED, a writer, and a dad to two 8-year-old boys, one who is on the autism spectrum and the other with ADHD. He is also our very first Dad+Friends and we are excited to share his wisdom!

Colin + Martin image by Michael McWatters

Colin + Martin image by Michael McWatters

The diagnosis is just a label that will help you get support and services for your child, but you need to believe in your child just as you did before the diagnosis. Presume competence, abandon shame, and love with all your heart.
Michael and Colin

5 words that describe your "job": Tech support, driver, DJ, researcher, George Washington*

* Colin, my ASD kiddo, calls me George Washington, not Dad. Still not completely sure why, though he recently told me Washington was "one of the 37 best presidents!"

Your children's names and ages:  Colin (ASD) and Martin (ADHD), they are 8-year-old twins.

How do your children inspire you? Martin inspires me with his unstoppable creativity. He’s always building, drawing, or writing something. My wife calls him the prop-master (she’s in theater). Colin inspires me with his joyous disposition and pure spirit. He’s always bouncing, rolling, twirling, moving.

What’s the one thing you wish people knew about your boys? I wish people knew that even though it may not look like it, Colin is very aware of those around him and what they are saying or doing. People often completely ignore him, as though he's not there, or they talk about him in the third person. I also wish strangers knew that he's not a bad kid and we're not bad parents just because, in some situations, he has meltdowns, or says or does "socially inappropriate" things. But we are doing our best, and so is he. 

Martin struggles with anxiety and confidence issues related in part to his ADHD, as well as having had had his own serious health scare (he went into liver failure and wound up on steroids for over a year). And he’s been processing the complicated feelings associated with having an autistic twin who goes to a different school and approaches the world in a very different way. So while it’s easy to go on first impressions — outwardly he’s a healthy, handsome (I’m biased!), gregarious boy — there’s fear and doubt lurking inside him, just under the surface, and sometimes I wish people knew that, if only so they’d be a bit more understanding.

What is an activity your whole family loves to do together? My boys are so different, it’s tricky to find something they both enjoy, but in the dog days of summer, we go to Sunset Park Pool in Brooklyn. It’s massive, teeming with humanity, and so loud our boys can be as raucous as they like.

Colin + Martin

How do you survive a tough day of parenting? When the boys go to sleep, my wife and I clean and reassemble the apartment (!), eat dinner, watch Netflix, and maybe, if we have the energy, catch up on the day’s events. Basically, we try to connect as adult human beings, with lives and interests of our own. I also keep a journal that I write in a few times a week. Documenting my thoughts helps me process things I'm dealing with. Does that sound too New Age-y? :)

What is the one thing in your play space your kids can't live without? Martin gravitates toward paper, pens, cardboard, scissors, tape. He often has a few "projects" going on at any given time. Colin isn’t as interested in toys, except lately he’s really hooked on an acoustic guitar that he’s learning to play. He carries it around, strums it, thumps it, and sometimes stands on it! 

What's the one thing you would drive back to get if you forgot it when out with your kid(s)? Probably my phone. I try to stay off it as much as possible when I'm with them, but I love taking photos of them, and it's the way we stay in touch if we're doing different things. And, in a pinch, it's a distraction if they're cranky or tired.

Their favorite toys? Does an iPad count as a toy? Because that seems to be the toy of choice for both boys at the moment.

Your child's favorite app? Colin’s favorite is the iOS Weather app; he loves to memorize the week's weather, and also look at the forecast for different cities. He loves telling me how hot it is in Abu Dhabi... for some reason. His other favorites include Leo's Fortune and Subway Surfers. Martin's favorite app is Minecraft, but he also loves Hopscotch (a visual programming app) and, of course, YouTube Kids.

Clothing item your children would wear every day if they could? My boys are almost completely oblivious to clothing. In fact, many times Colin seems more interested in shedding clothes.

3 accounts you follow on social media that inspire you and why? While I do follow special needs parents on social media, lately I've been most interested in hearing from autistic people directly. Here are three people I'm following who give me insights, information, and inspiration:

Colin McWaters
  1. Invisible Strings

  2. Ido in Autismland

  3. Emily Brooks

What is the last thing you purchased for yourself that made you really happy? Twenty sessions at a spin class. Expensive, but cheaper than therapy and I felt better afterward.

What advice would you give to a (new) special needs parent? I'd tell any (new) autism parent—mom or dad—that a diagnosis changes nothing about your child. The diagnosis is just a label that will help you get support and services for your child, but you need to believe in your child just as you did before the diagnosis. Presume competence, abandon shame, and love with all your heart. In fact, I wrote something about this that was popular enough to be published a few places around the Web. You can read it here.

What quote do you live by? “Hang on tightly, let go lightly.” It sounds like a piece of ancient Eastern wisdom, but it's actually a line from the movie Croupier!

Follow Michael at ASDDad.com, where he shares his personal experiences and adventures with his son, Colin.