Column: A father’s two worlds intersect on the autism spectrum

Nicholas Golden and his son, Nico. Golden works with Northeast Arc in Danvers.

My work in the field of applied behavior analysis, special education and psychology started over 15 years ago when I graduated from Northeastern University and started working as an assistant at a school for those with traumatic brain injury.

As I further defined my career choices by continuing my education in these areas, I always wanted to make a difference and help people. My work at the Northeast Arc has allowed me to continue my efforts in helping to change lives every day.

When pursuing my education and starting my career, I never thought it would end up being invaluable in how I raise a child.

Having a child wasn’t high on my list of priorities at that point, so I usually would brush off talk from my friends that I would be a great dad to a child with special needs. I would see those around me with family members or kids with autism, but I never really entertained the thought of it happening to me.

It didn’t really fully hit me until my fiancé and I were expecting our first child five years ago. Then those conversations came flooding back and I had this overwhelming feeling that having a child on the spectrum would be part of my future as a new dad.

I can’t scientifically quantify or define that feeling. I just knew.

It wasn’t a bad thing (and still isn’t), it was just something I knew deep down would happen, and I started to become more grateful for all my education and work experiences. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but was well aware that it would be a lot easier given my understanding and experience in the fields of autism, special education, applied behavior analysis and psychology.

My feeling was confirmed when my son Nico was born. Having a child on the spectrum is not easy; there are so many things one must consider that you probably wouldn’t even think about if your child was neuro-typical.

At the same time, there are so many blessings and amazing things that my son is doing because of being on the spectrum. To me, autism is both extremely difficult and extremely rewarding.

Parents of the children I work with frequently tell me that my outlook and ability to see both sides is what gives them further hope and clarity in challenging times. Life isn’t black and white, it is typically a mixture of both, and I feel the same about autism.

It did take some time to fully accept that my work is something I carry with me at all times. I might spend the day working on specific strategies for clients, and then go home and work on the same thing for my son.

I feel fortunate with Nico’s prognosis and understand there are others who have much harder struggles than my family. At the end of the day, my son has a better chance in this world with me having his back. That is something for which I am extremely grateful.

I have had many roles in my career, which has only helped make me a better clinician. Whether it has been as a special educator, advocate, behavior analyst, autism specialist or psychologist, I understand the complexity of the overall system and ways to better address it.

Now, as a parent, it further rounds out my experiences and only adds to what I bring to the table.

Having a child on the spectrum also helps me to better understand and respect the challenges that parents face. Whether it is the struggle to find appropriate resources, funding or understanding for a child, I get it. I greatly appreciate how difficult it is to run a behavior intervention plan, a program on receptive language skills, track data throughout the day, or carry through on a reinforcement system.

It is no easy task, and I have better learned through my experience as a parent how to make programs and plans as easy as possible for a parent to follow with everything else they have on their plate. I no longer view situations as just a clinician, I also add the layer of being a parent to everything I do.

When I hear parents talk about the struggles with their child not sleeping through the night and only getting four hours of sleep, believe me, I’ve been there. When I hear them talk about the joy of seeing their child reach different milestones ahead of their peers or the amazement of having your child know every single detail about dinosaurs, I get it.

One of the reasons I love working for Northeast Arc is the fact that I am not the only parent with a child on the spectrum. Whether it be in the Autism ABA Program, Building Blocks, Spotlight, the Autism Center or any of the number of programs that Northeast Arc provides, there is a sizable percentage of us with children or close relatives with autism.

We aren’t just speaking from education or clinical experience. We are right there with the families we serve, and we understand the triumphs and struggles firsthand. We advocate and work so hard because we are both professionally and personally invested in autism.

We are all in this together, and together we give a greater voice to advocate, teach, work through the difficult times, and show the benefits of autism.

I look forward to having the privilege of spending another Father’s Day with my son. I hope all dads enjoy their special day with their children, no matter where they are developmentally.

Nicholas Golden, of Groveland, is clinical manager and coordinator of autism applied behavioral analysis services at Northeast Arc, based in Danvers.

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