I’m one of the lucky few to know the secret identity of the Preteen Mutant Ninja Turtle that patrols our house, keeping it safe from bad guys of all kinds, and crane flies that invariably invade our house every spring. If you are a friend of evil, look out, because she will terminate you with prejudice. She is…ZOE.
Normally, as a father of a little girl, you have a different perspective than if you had a son. More often than not, the little girls look up to their dads for protection, security, big hugs and kisses, and they see them as the foundation for the characteristics they will look for (or rebel against!) when they begin to date boys, and it will carry on through until they choose the person they wish to spend the rest of their lives with.
Dads with boys become their first partner in crime. They are the people that often show a boy how to throw a tight spiral, cook a perfect steak, play with Avengers toys, and help them begin to form opinions on who they wish to follow around like puppy dogs as they begin to become little men.
Most kids will exhibit with some sort of opposite-gender behavior; at least based on the basic gender-roles most kids are taught. You may find a boy who has a kitchen set, much like I did when I was very small. Or, more commonly, you see the “tom boy,” the little girl who isn’t all that interested in dresses and Barbie dolls. They want to play sports with the boys, go fishing with Grampa, or sit down with their brothers and root for the family sports teams.
And then there is Zoe. Picture the little girl who wants to have a tea party with her mom and sister, dressed in a nice little dress and her hair done up nice and pretty. But, in addition to that, she has a toy bow and arrow set strapped on her. She has bathrobe belts tied up the length of each arm, used to hold the necessary daggers designed for in-close combat when intruders surprise her and get in close. And she could be wearing a number of different masks; Spiderman, Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or just a headband tied around her head, a la Rambo. And I can tell you right now, she is just as bad-ass as any of those three.
Being Zoe’s dad has forced me to rethink parenting, both based on my experiences as a child, myself, as well as my methods and practices I used when Penelope came along. Some parents know sooner than others whether their child is on the spectrum or not. Sometimes, like with Zoe, it is harder to spot if you’re not educated in spotting the signs. We weren’t those parents, even though Shelby’s cousin Logan landed in the spectrum when he was born and exhibits many of the typical traits of someone with autism. We missed the fact Zoe was not walking or talking as soon as most kids and it took me until she was about two years old to really understand the rudimentary sentences she was saying. It took time to notice that as Zoe moved up through the different daycare age groups, she wasn’t progressing as quickly academically, or at the same maturity rate. Ultimately, as she got to be about four and a half, I began to see that maybe there was something developmentally different with her. At four to five, many kids will be running and jumping with a far greater dexterity and balance than kids in the two to three-year-old range. Zoe had not gotten much past the three-year-old phase by the time she reached five. And, she was clearly not speaking at the level other five-year-olds were.
She eventually graduated from preschool and began the following year in Kindergarten, and though we were beginning to see some signs, we weren’t really doing much about it. But after a couple of months in school, we were called in to the school to go over an Individual Education Plan after they were nothing short of a disaster for her. She was wetting her pants in school almost daily, she’d spend 20 minutes playing in the sink in class, was having a hard time staying on task for assignments and was often emotionally charged throughout the school day. Add to this that she was head and shoulders taller than just about every kid in her class, which made her stand out to the other students. As we sat around the table, her teacher described how kids thought it was fun to make Zoe cry, and each and every one of us teared up at the idea of kids laughing at Zoe for not being able to cope with the trials and tribulations of the transition to kindergarten. But, as low as the IEP had brought us initially, it lifted us back up as the school began to lay out the plan for Zoe to help her complete the transition to school, and then begin getting her up to her own grade level when it came to school work. It was immediately clear that our kids’ school was an advocate for the developmentally-challenged children in the area. Without their help and support, Zoe would be a different child than she is today. They showed right from the start that they cared about her success as a student, and as time went on, they fell in love with the little girl who wanted to be friends with every single person she meets. At their recommendation, we took them to see a pediatrician and she was formally diagnosed with autism and ADHD.
Over the last three years, we’ve seen her dexterity, comprehension and physical abilities rise and rise, because of the school’s efforts, and as parents we were far more educated now. We got lucky in that our insurance covered many services and we were able to get assistance through Easter Seals, who provided counselors to help Zoe better her control her impulses, and how to better interact with other people.
And that brings me back around to the opening of this story. I am the dad to The World’s Most Dangerous Superhero. She doesn’t have a name for herself in this guise. But she has said laid claim to dangerousness. When I ask if she has a name, she says, matter-of-factly, “Zoe.” As if I should have known that. Sometimes I get to play the good guy sidekick, but most days I’m one of the bad guys. And on most attacks, I don’t know it until I’ve been attacked.
Now, Zoe is in full “ninja” gear; ninja vest, throwing stars, headband, a couple of sais, and a samurai sword from his Leonardo costume. I’m standing three feet away from Zoe and she looks up at me and says in the most convincingly tough seven-year-old voice you will ever hear, “it’s time to crack some skulls.” Then she flashes her big smile and says “you’re my best pal, daddy,” which has on occasion solicited an occasional tear. But, I fell for it, and as Zoe sucker punches me in the gut, I know I’m the bad guy again.
Tim Landucci is a 44-year-old parent of two girls, 7 and 9. Penelope, 9, is not on the spectrum. Zoe, 7, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and ADHD when she was 5. For the last 3 years I have been essentially a stay-at-home dad, either because my job allowed me to work from home, or because for some of that time, I was laid off. I’m also full time best pal to Zoe.
This article was featured in Issue 41 – Issue 41 – Celebrating Family