I remember the day clearly. To most, it was an ordinary day, but to me, it was the day I began a new legacy. It was the birth of my son, Shayne Daniel Owens. He was born on March 29th, 2008, and I honestly felt my fears intensify, and then dissipate. “I’m not ready!” “Am I going to be an amazing father, or a good dad?” These questions arose while holding my son for the first time. I even remember stopping the doctor in the hallway and asking her if he will have the same deformity that I have. See, I have what science calls an “AV Fistula” on my right leg. In short, this allows my leg to swell up severely if not compressed. I have taken years and years of torment, questions, and just blank stares, and I will not allow that for my son. The doctor smiled and said, “No, he’s very healthy, Mr. Owens.” A sigh of relief came out. I covered the bases. My thoughts were finally at ease.
The transition from birth to home life was so quick, amazing, and instantaneous; it was beyond measure. From Shayne’s first words, to his first steps, it was amazing. Then, it was that feeling. Some call it a heightened sense, a parent’s intuition, but my ego blocked it out so many times. Shayne quickly became two and wasn’t acting like what society called “normal.” Hours and hours of “stimming,” lining up his trains, only eating the same foods. I doubted the signs, the possibility, myself, and, hurtfully, Shayne.
Shayne’s mother often dismissed the possibility of Shayne being on the spectrum but, regardless, read and looked up information about it. I have to say, this was the first time that I was unsure of myself. Could it be because I was too arrogant to even consider my first born possibly being on the spectrum, or maybe it was the thought that I had no control in this. I didn’t know where to start. The day came when Shayne was evaluated to see if he was autistic. Before going into the appointment, I remember assuring his mother that Shayne was healthy, and that he will grow up to be fine. We exited the car, I grabbed Shayne, and we walked in. This was the day that changed our lives, and my heart, forever. Shayne was labeled as high functioning on the autism spectrum. Though looking at him from a third person aspect, you couldn’t tell that anything was different about him. Still, to this day, there isn’t. I consider Shayne to be an extra-efficient, organized, motivated young man. He is beyond ordinary — a super hero.
So…a new father, an infant child…I had no clue how to take the lead in this situation. You have to understand that to most men, being the alpha, leader, or head of the household is what drive us. I was lost, and this affected everything I did at this point
It seemed like it only took the doctor five minutes to say, “Yes, Shayne is on the spectrum.” Almost as if “high functioning” would calm my anger. Then came the part of “What next?” The doctor began to give us the “fluff.” Now, when I say that, I mean all due respect to the doctor’s extensive schooling, but in all honesty, even she didn’t have any suggestions. I can say this is when Shayne’s mom’s extensive research paid off. She was able to look at some websites which offered help to Shayne, but to me, it wasn’t enough. I needed reasons why. Not to point blame, but to understand the actual cause, and the doctor wasn’t offering this at all. I more or less had to deal with my anger issues alone, taking on the fault for Shayne having this.
Was it my bloodline, or was it maybe Shayne’s mother side? See, that’s where most men default. Pushing the blame to the other, when in fact no one is to blame. I use to talk to my friends about Shayne and my life at that time. It was hard. Many of them, when hearing the news, didn’t know how to console me or give any advice. I lacked so much, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Shayne faced another obstacle, nutrition. He quickly began to grow an obsession with only certain foods. For example, fries from a fast food restaurant, whole milk, and French toast sticks. It was hard to even take him out to a restaurant to eat. There were many times I let Shayne’s mother eat while I fed Shayne what I could. It wasn’t stressful so much for me, but to see my son only rely on three foods, as if he was already being “restricted” in life…something had to be done. His mother found a feeding program at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). It was a month-long program for children like Shayne and as well as those who are not on the spectrum who have difficulties accepting certain foods. I felt that this was an excellent opportunity to take charge in the growth and development of my son. At the time I was not working, and it worked out perfectly. Shayne and I participated in the feeding program that ran all day, Monday through Friday. Shayne was to take a bite of food, and then would receive a toy of his choice to play with for one minute — then repeat the steps until his meal was gone. I was able to observe his actions each day behind a two-way mirror. There were good days and bad days. I have seen Shayne cry at the top of his lungs due to frustration of not wanting to eat. I had to sit there and watch the therapist administering the food to him, but composed myself because I knew the end result was much more important than temporary comfort to him. The feeding program worked. Shayne was eating all types of foods and all types of textures.
I was able to find a job soon after and as I came home from work one day I remember thinking about how I endured years of teasing , hurtful banter, and name calling. Did I want this for Shayne? The worst fear now wasn’t even dying — it was society. It made me scared for what will happen to Shayne after his grandparents, myself and his mother dies. Will he be loved like the love we show him, or will the world label his condition with a “scarlet letter” and sentence him to a life of ridicule? I know that this is a thought ALL parents have, not just parents with those on the spectrum. Some things that I believed in for Shayne’s personal growth were God, patience with love, and mainstream schooling. The first two are self-explanatory: every culture can provide those, but let’s talk for a few minutes about mainstreaming.
Shayne attended a school system that I would rather not mention, but I have to say, never provided the best for him. I was brainwashed even after looking over site after site of information regarding children, learning, and autism. Children imitate what they see and hear. Unfortunately, Shayne mimicked the behaviors of his fellow classmates. Now, before I say that he regressed, let me say in defense that there were children in his class with severe cases of autism where outbursts were common along with other disruptive behaviors. Regardless, they were still beautiful children. With that being said, the removal of Shayne from that school was just in time. That’s when I realized the importance of routine. I disrupted it by taking him away from that school, but I had confidence in Shayne and the natural curiosity that he would have around neurotypical children. We were given a suggestion for a private day care. This woman took care of Shayne as if he was her own child, and for that I will always be grateful. His daycare was in a house setting and Shayne was only given one option — to learn the ways of other kids. And he did. It was to a point where the children always smiled when Shayne came to the daycare. I knew from that moment that the right choice was made. But there was still something missing, and that was his academics. We were dealing with a small window, now we had to search for a pre-K program for Shayne, even though he realistically already been in one. I took that project on myself. I found a program that was very impressive and not too far away from where we lived.
When Shayne started school, I had to act as his aide for two weeks. It was an up close experience in the “Day in the Life of Shayne.” It helped further my understanding of what Shayne goes through every day and what my role needed to be in his development. There was eventually a “right fit” for Shayne.
Shayne also had services that came out to our house. Learning in his own environment seemed like it helped a lot during this transition time, with his routine being changed from one school to a new one. Every day, I saw Shayne grow. It made me realize how strong a person can be. Then came the day his mother and I were waiting for, Graduation Day. It was cute – they had a little graduation for his class. In life, you have to appreciate the little things that make you smile. Seeing and understanding how much effort, compassion, curiosity, and love he puts into school every day made me so proud. He looked so studious in his cap and gown. His first day of Kindergarten fast approached. I remember that day because I couldn’t make it there to see him off in a new school district, but after his first day, it was a priority to call him and ask. He was so excited; to this day, he likes to go to school. Never think you’re less of a father if you have to work and you miss a report card conference, school activity, or anything. You will make time to be there; you already are. Providing for your child is key: the foundation, in fact.
I remember seeing him get off the school bus for the first time with his slim, tall statue and oversized book bag (it had spikes on it — he picked it out). He followed the other kids staggering into school greeted by “good mornings” from the staff. But what I was most intrigued with was the multiple children his age and older who knew his name. All I heard was, “Hi, Shayne!” He looked at them, smiled and waved back at some, redirection needed for some responses, but he was comfortable. And that’s what matters. Shayne has earned himself “Student of the Month” two years in a row to date. He has made tremendous growth both in the areas of education, but also in socialization. The reason why I wanted to write about my and Shayne’s experiences is because there may be other men, other fathers out there who are scared and scarred emotionally about this. The first thing I ask of all of you is to seek the understanding of unselfish love, whether it’s through religion, personal experiences, or just your maturity. And I ask you to share this information. I remembered back in my youth, I was always asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always use to respond with “police officer,” sometimes “doctor” or “lawyer,” but never “Superhero.” And it seems I never will because I have my own Superhero, and his name is Shayne Owens.
Jamiel D. Owens is a Correctional Officer in the State of Delaware and an advocate for his son, Shayne, who was diagnosed at age three with high functioning autism. Owens has been an active speaker on autism and fatherhood in his community as well as in seminars locally. In 2014, Owens began working on his website, Au-some.org; it will help parents find various services for children on the autism spectrum. When Owens is not working with inmates to rehabilitate them at Delaware state prisons, he enjoys the gym as well as quality time with his son and family.
This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism