The Unbidden Emotions of Special-Needs Parents

The internet can’t tell you how to feel, but it will sure try! Years ago, when I first found the sprawling online communities of people affected by autism, my head spun. I was behind on research, I realized. I hadn’t read the books, and I hadn’t yet formed the opinions. The battle lines were already drawn. There was controversy about things I’d only just heard of. There were tribes grasping at my wrists, trying to pull me over to their side. 

Some of those struggles were, and are, worthwhile fights. Some of them were about science and behavior and the merits of various therapies. They are necessary discussions that can sometimes get heated. 

Other fights were, frankly, ludicrous, especially the squabble over how I was supposed to feel. Was my son’s diagnosis supposed to make me sad or happy? Was I supposed despair about his future, or was I supposed to rejoice with delight?

Why do I say it’s a ludicrous discussion? Because in all my years as a father and as a minister of the gospel, I’ve never once found any success in telling people how to feel. Feelings don’t work that way. They are uninvited guests. They show up on the doorstep of our hearts unbidden. 

“Why are you here?” We ask the anger that flashes on a perfectly sunny day.
“Stay out, you,” we yell at fear, who keeps ringing the doorbell in the midnight calm.
“I shouldn’t be laughing right now, should I?” We ask ourselves in the middle of a funeral.

Emotions are puzzling rascals. They don’t have schedules, they won’t explain themselves, and above all, they refuse to be coerced.


I can tell you from experience: you can’t force joy into someone’s face. My son’s autism diagnosis crushed me. I got angry. I got depressed, and for years, I felt nothing but grief. It felt like all my dreams for Jack were gone. And you know what? That part wasn’t my fault. My emotions barged in on me. I felt how I felt, and nobody could guilt me into being happy.

Coming out of it, though… that was my responsibility. 

So how did I do it? By acknowledging the pain and working through it. I had to come to grips with the ugly storm raging inside of me. I had to talk it out. Every week, I met with my senior pastor and he led me a journey through, not around, my grief. Even though I wanted to jump to joy, it doesn’t work that way. You have to go through the process of grieving and healing. We have to face our emotions squarely, to feel them, and then to push through them.

The moment I began that process. I started to heal. I started to become the father my son needed in the first place.

And isn’t this what we’re all after in the first place? Our children need us to be whole. They need us to live above the fog of depression. They need us to celebrate them. They need us to have faith in God and faith in their abilities. It’s hard to parent from the swamps of sadness and sorrow. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Joy should be our desired destination. But the only way to get there, friend, is to acknowledge the ugly things we feel, and then to address them. We need to walk the road that leads to healing. It might require vulnerability with clergy or trusted friends. It might require professional counseling. It might even require medication. But it will be worth it. Our children will thank us.