A Special Father’s Day

Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy. This framed cross-stitch quote hung over the couch in my parents’ living room for years. My mom made it for my dad for his first Father’s Day. This cross-stitch wisdom got me thinking: if anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy, then what does it take to be a daddy to a child with special needs?

What does it take to be a daddy to a child with special needs? Ben and 2-year-old Ellie start with connection.

Studies show that fathers of children with special needs experience worry that often leads to feelings of isolation and helplessness. There are reports of marital strain due to stress and financial burden. Oftentimes the breadwinner’s responsibility falls to the father because the mother takes on the role of primary caregiver and this leaves him less involved in understanding his child’s diagnosis.

According to the CDC, 1 in 6 children aged 3 to 17 are diagnosed with a developmental disability each year — that’s a lot of fathers who are looking for answers on how to be the best daddy for their child. While there is no best way to father a child with special needs, every dad should know that he is not alone. There are resources out there to help:

The Center for Exceptional Families introduces parents to an ambassador who connects them with local resources.

Arkansas Children’s Hospital has a Family Resource Center that can put parents in contact with people who can help — whether they’re looking for emotional, financial, medical or educational resources.

On Facebook, there are dad groups for every type of special needs. DADS (Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome) of Arkansas, Dads For Autism, Arkansas Special Needs Families and many others are good places to find hard-working fathers who are sharing similar experiences.

When my daughter Ellie was diagnosed with Down syndrome, my husband Ben’s first instinct was to reach out for help. He scheduled us to meet with a parent who had a son with Down syndrome. This connection led us to a whole support system that gave us tools and resources, and who continue to light our path.

I asked my three favorite daddies to help me answer this question:

Does it take anything special to be a father of a child with special needs?

Ben, my babies’ daddy said, “Nothing. Just show up. All you have to do is make some sort of a connection with your child to let her know you care about her. Sure, there is worry and it gets frustrating, but that is no different than with any of our kids.”

“The only thing that matters is loving her. I don’t think it takes a special person to be the grandfather of a child with special needs, but I think being the grandfather of a child with special needs makes me a better person,” said my father-in-law Michael Honaker.

And finally, David Pace, my daddy said, “Parenthood takes patience, courage and the ability to think and act under pressure. With Ellie, you have more to juggle every day in order to give her the best care and development. I try to be supportive and always point out the good things. By far, she has brought much more joy into our lives than has caused worries and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”

Heather Honaker is circus ringleader for three kids under age 4 — two typical, one not, but they all think they are special. You can follow along as the messiness unfolds around her family by reading her Typically not Typical blog.

Originally published in June 2020 issue of Little Rock Family.

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