Transcript #54 – The Autisim Dad
The Autism Dad is the name of Rob Gorski’s podcast. Rob is known for his leadership and openness in the autism community and beyond. While we touch on some of the challenges of raising a child on the spectrum, this podcast is for dads everywhere!
“Kids are supposed to drive their parents crazy. It’s just the way it is. “
Highlights of our conversation include:
How to make sure you don’t drain your mental bank account while parenting (And how to make more deposits!)
Challenges of feeling isolated as a family
How he defeats Anger and no longer loses his temper
Rob’s tips on communicating with your kids- an area he’s had to focus on with an autistic family but has incredible results.
How to discuss when you’re feeling unhappy without feeling like you’re unloading on your friends
Will Braunstein, A Dad’s Path: Hello and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today with Rob Gorski from The Autism Dad Podcast. Rob is a single dad to three amazing autistic boys, as well as the founder and CEO of The Autism Dad LLC. He is a multiple award-winning blogger, podcaster, content creator, digital marketer, social media influencer, and a respected public figure. For well over a decade in this space, you can find him at www.theautismdad.com. Welcome, Rob.
Rob Gorski, The Autism Dad: Hi. Nice to meet you. Thanks for having me.
Will: Thanks for joining us. I’m really excited about this. To start with, I just want to be clear this particular podcast is not for parents with autistic kids or kids with disability. I think there’s a lot of value that we can learn from what you’ve learned, Rob, for everyone. In my opinion, it seems like a lot of this “mental health” stuff is a spectrum. Autism, you hear about the spectrum. You’re somewhere on that spectrum. I think mental health can be similar. We all have our ups and downs, and good days and bad days. We’ll also would be dad? That’s just life. Again, even if we’re not diagnosed with something, I think it can be good to just talk through some of this stuff and what we’re feeling.
Rob: Dads to dads.
Will: Dads to dads. I like that. I like that. To start, Rob, can we talk about your own mental health and what your health regime is, we’ll call it.
Rob: Oh, it is a work in progress. I’m someone who I guess is prone to depression, have been battling it since I was, I don’t know, my early teens. I refer to it as a war with depression because there’s battles that I win, there’s battles that I lose. When I frame it as an ongoing war, then I know that just because I lost something today, doesn’t mean I’m going to lose tomorrow.
I got another battle to fight. I don’t know, it’s just a way that it works better for myself. The last couple of months have been really difficult for me. Emotionally, I had some changes in my personal life and I went through a divorce a couple of years ago after about 20 years. I’m raising my kids on my own and just burn out. You give and give and give and give without putting back and you reach a point where you just burn out. You get depressed and you just struggle.
You don’t take care of yourself because when you’re depressed. You just don’t care. You just shunt all the blood to the core organs. You just focus on the things that are absolutely necessary and everything else– laundry stays in the baskets. Dishes are on a counter, mails on a table or something. You just have to reprioritize your life. It’s temporary and transient for me, so I had to focus back on getting into the gym, which is hugely therapeutic for me.
I have a therapist. I need to find a new one but I’ve been on therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, healthy diet, staying hydrated, trying to get solid eight hours of sleep, and putting back into myself so that I have something to give my kids. I’m very open about talking about the depression and stuff because I don’t think it’s something that we should shy away from discussing. Just because you can’t see something on the surface doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Will: I appreciate that honesty, and it obviously depends on the age of your kids, but Rob is spot on if you have any sickness, or any challenges you’re dealing with that are affecting you and affecting how you parent, be honest about it, be open about it.
It’s always amazing to me when I talk to people about mental health and when people are feeling down and out because the answers are always very similar, and they’re what you said. It’s like you’re depressed or feeling sad or feeling depression in our head, and yet the first thing you said was out. It’s like that connection is so strong going to the gym, going to whatever it is. I don’t know why it is, but it’s so true
Rob: It’s dopamine and endorphins. I was just diagnosed with ADHD two months ago at age 43, and that is a lot of my life that makes more sense now that I recognize that and I went through that whole process. I think that’s going unmanaged for so long. I think that contributed to burnout and the depression. As I recognize those issues, I can cater to them or play to my strengths and be aware of what’s going on so that I’m kinder to myself. I’m not so hard on myself for the things that ADHD brains do. It is what it is. I’m going to forget. It’s okay. I just write it down. There’s a lot of stuff that was going on I think that contributed to one of those periods of time where you just don’t want to get out of bed.
Will: Those are the hardest because worst thing for you not to do is get out of bed, or is to stay in bed. You need to get out of bed, as you know. You need to work out. If you are able to get out of that area and start recharging and get change your diet, like you said, get some sleep, drink water. It’s amazing, be outside a little bit.
Rob: Some sunlight, talk to somebody, ask for help.
Will: Absolutely help is a big one. It’s a big challenge where you just talked about burnout. One area that I struggle with is how to start recharging before it’s too late. Before I’m at a zero or a negative energy-wise. I’m curious, have you found things that work for you?
Rob: Yes. I look at it as a bank account. I have a physical and emotional bank account. If I just give and give and give and give or spend and spend and spend and spend, then I will physically and emotionally bankrupt myself and serves no good for anyone. It’s negative thing for everybody. The struggle as dads, especially and moms are the same way, but just speaking as dads, you feel like you have to give your kids every ounce of everything you are every minute of every day because they’re always a priority.
I get the logic, but the reality is it’s not sustainable because you will bankrupt yourself physically and emotionally, and then you’re no good to anyone including yourself. My therapist told me that you have to be selfish before you can be selfless. You have to put back into yourself so that you can give your kids or your spouse or your marriage or whatever the best version of you.
I just really try to continually put back. My thing is going to the gym four or five days a week. That’s my thing. If I don’t go, just don’t even talk to me that day, it’s my way of putting back. If I do small things on a regular basis, then I never run out. It’s self-care is so vital. If you get into the habit of doing just something every day or a couple of days a week, then you’re replenishing more than what you’re spending, and then you never hopefully don’t run out.
Will: I like that. I like that a lot. I think that’s spot on. When you start feeling that negativity and you start feeling the sickness or just not feeling good, just start looking at your patterns, and looking at your habits, and “Wait. Am I still working out five days a week? Am I getting seven or eight hours of sleep? Am I drinking water? Am I going outside? What are my influences?” That sort of thing.
Rob: You got to break it down to the most simplest things sometimes and then triage, and then prioritize and then build. Sometimes it’s the simple solutions that are the best.
Will: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. It’s so frustrating because it feels so heavy. It is heavy when you’re in it. At the same time, it’s not as simple as doing those things, but doing those things really help.
Rob: Yes. No. It is not. I was a psych major in college and I understand the mechanics behind depression. I understand the biochemistry. I understand why it works and whatever. I can understand in the moment why I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling. I understand that even though everything in my life, and work is going really good. My business is going really good, podcast, all the stuff is going really good. I have a lot of positive things. I was still depressed. That’s frustrating because it’s like I know why I feel this way. I know that it’s not reality, but I can’t stop myself from feeling that way. You can’t snap yourself out of it or will yourself out of it.
You have to work your way out of it. Usually, that requires doing things that you just really don’t want to do because you’re depressed. Working out is the last thing I think people want to do because they have no energy. They have no drive. They just want to do nothing. They don’t want to be around other people. You just isolate and you find ways to push yourself a little bit. I use my kids. I’m all they have. I don’t have a choice. I have to keep going. If taking care of me helps me to be better at taking care of them, then I just have to do that. It’s not easy. You’re right, it’s not.
Will: To me, it’s also no question, you have to work out. You have to be somewhat fit if only because you want to keep up with your kids. Just being that simple. It’s not, I need these 45 minutes just for myself. There’s a lot of other benefits that come from that. When you’re talking about areas that help, I found support structures and friendships and that mixture sometimes. What that looks like. Can you talk about that a little? Do you have something like that in your life that’s worked, that’s that hasn’t worked, gone up and down?
Rob: I think when you’re an autism family or a family with a child that has disabilities, you tend to be very isolated. A lot of times what happens is your circle of friends get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller until they sometimes just disappear because it’s tough to understand if you don’t live it. You have to find refuge in the online community a lot of times because there’s groups of people who get together who are parents of autistic kids, in my case, where you can talk to people who understand, who don’t judge you, who don’t make you feel bad about how you’re feeling. That’s how my blog got started and took off.
It was providing that outlet for people who needed it or didn’t know that it existed. There’s not always a lot of in-person connection which is sad and it makes it hard, but we just have to connect where we can I guess. As my kids get older, they’re doing really well, so I don’t have a lot of those restrictions on me anymore. It’s just a matter of I’m so used to life being a certain way for 20 years that you get stuck in the way of doing something. I have to put myself out there more than what I have done.
Will: Sounds you have challenges beyond what I have not having an autism family as you said. We all have challenges though. I think you’re right what you said. You said two really great things there. One is the last thing, which is you can do more. That’s not a statement for you, but I talked to so many dads who a little bit are feeling that, are feeling like, “Hey, I don’t have my support structure or friends.” Then often I say, “Well, reach out to people.” The thing is you don’t need about a thousand.
You don’t need to call. You don’t need a text seven people and have seven people say, “Yes, let’s hang out. You just need one or two or whatever.” I think you’re right not blaming yourself at all, but this is every almost every dad I talk in such situations is also saying, “Hey, yes, I maybe I should reach out more.” It takes one party to reach out.
Rob: Dads in general tend to be more reserved and less open about what they’re going through, what they’re experiencing, and less likely to reach out for help or to talk. I think it’s important too that people in their lives reach out to them. It’s easier for me if somebody asks me something directly than me have to come to you and be like, “Hey, I’m feeling depressed, or Hey, I’m really struggling right now.” I think it’s a hack for working with dads because it’s the way we’re wired.
Will: I think that’s right on. That was the second thing that you said that really made a lot of sense to me. We’re all unique in our own ways. Our families are all unique. The people you’re going to connect with are unique. We need to find our own tribe, and what that tribe looks like. That’s hopefully a families we can hang out with, or a family we can hang with, or it’s a dad that we have similar challenges so we can relate more. It sounds really simple, but it was a big epiphany to me.
I had met a bunch of dads who I was just not connecting with, and they’re cool guys. They’re nice, but I just wasn’t connecting. I was sad about that. Over time, me and my family found our tribe, and we’re in a much better place. It’s complicated. It’s certainly complicated, but when you find those commonalities it can help.
Rob: It’s the little things that help. I totally agree with you.
Will: Another thing I want to dive into a little bit is since we’re just diving in here, [laughs] I feel like-
Rob: Go right ahead.
Will: -is controlling our emotions.
Will: One thing a couple of dads write in very recently, but it’s something with always challenges about anger. How it’s okay to feel anger, but it’s not okay to act in anger. Certainly, that’s what we want to teach our kids. Certainly, that’s how we want to act, and then knowing that our kids do what we do, not what we say. [laughs] If we react in anger, they’re going to learn to react in anger. We’d love to hear any tips or any thoughts you have on emotions, controlling your emotions, and that thing.
Rob: I look at it as a pretty simple thing and I’m human. I just put out this thing a couple of weeks ago about, they tend to refer to people like me or the moms as autism dad warriors or something. The reality is I’m no different than anybody else. I’m just a human being. I have very real limitations, and I need to allow myself to experience those limitations. There are times that I can get angry with my kids. I’ve been resentful in the past. I’ve been frustrated. They drive me nuts. Just because they’re autistic doesn’t exclude them from doing that.
Kids are supposed to drive their parents crazy. It’s just the way it is. I drove my parents crazy. I’m sure they drove their parents crazy. It’s just a rite of passage. I think it’s okay to feel what you feel. It’s how you deal with those feelings that matters. I don’t get angry very often. I can get frustrated, and I see those as different things, but it just I don’t fight how I feel. I just live with it. I look at it as a separate thing. I just allow myself to be in that place in that moment, and then I walk away from it. I don’t carry it with me. I don’t carry resentment or anger. There’s no point.
I know it’s not easy for everybody to do, but one thing that is my kids have taught me over the years and a lot of parents, if you have challenging kids patience. Kids will teach you patience. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. If I’m angry, I’ll be angry. I’m not going to punch the wall. I’m not going to scream at my kids. I just, “Okay, I’m angry. Why am I angry?” You just talk yourself through it. Maybe you have to walk away for a little bit and just chill out and cool off, or go for a walk, or walk the dog, or go to the gym. Whatever you have to do, deal with it in a socially appropriate way. You can set a positive example for your kids.
I think it’s a positive thing that my kids see me angry because then they see how I deal with that anger in a productive way. They can see me sad because they need to know how to deal with being sad. You can be sad and that’s okay. I just think that we need to embrace our humanity and remember that we’re not perfect. We’re going to feel whatever we feel. It’s more about what we do with those feelings and how we handle them than having them in the first place.
Will: Totally. I like that a lot. I’m jealous that you don’t– [laughs] It sounds you’ve got things under control with your–
Rob: Well, it’s not. It’s not. The thing is I was a medic and a firefighter for a long time. I thrive in like a crisis environment. Zombie apocalypse would be amazing, ridiculous. You know what I mean?
Will: That’s your– [laughs]
Rob: It’s harder for me to cope with things when they’re going well because I know how to handle a crisis. I know how to handle an emergency. I know how to handle all that stuff. I just don’t let stuff get to me the way that it does. I’ve been living a public life for 10 or 15 years now and I have had the worst trolls. I’ve had people say the most horrible things used to get under my skin. I just get to the point where it’s like I don’t care. I’ve just got to a point where I just allow myself to feel whatever I feel and then it passes. I don’t have to hang on to it. I don’t have to fight it. I don’t have to. It just is. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Will: Yes. No. It’s a beautiful place to be. I mean just honestly, that’s a great place to be.
Rob: I don’t mean it to make it sound easy. I don’t feel I have a step-by-step process that gets me from one place to the other. It just I’m angry. I’m angry and I’ll go chop wood or cut the grass or something to burn off that energy and then I’m fine. Just channel it to something constructive.
Will: That is great. The last topic I want to talk about is communication.
Will: Communicating with your kids, and I know your kids are older. They’re teenage, et cetera. My goal when my kids are teenagers is to have them be open with me, and me to be open with them to keep these lines of communication open. I’d be curious, what you found in terms of what that journey’s been. Now that you’re in the teenage years, what the journey look.
Rob: Autism tends to bring a lot of communication issues. That can sometimes be problematic. In my case, all my kids are verbal, very verbal, and they are very articulate. They can express themselves in a way that’s effective I think most of the time. I always want them to feel like they can come to me and they can talk. One of the original challenges and anybody who has autistic kids are challenging kids. There’s a different way of communicating with each one of them. It’s not a one size fits all thing. In my house fair isn’t everybody gets the same thing; it’s everybody gets what they need in order to meet their potential.
It’s different for each one of my kids. I think patience and empathy and letting your kids, talking about how you’re feeling and letting them learn from you, modeling that behavior. Going through my divorce was really hard because I was devastated, but I had to be very, very careful because my kids live with me full time. I have full custody of my kids, and they will experience my feelings. I had to be careful how I presented myself because it can impact them, but I was sad. We talked about why I’m sad.
That allowed them to more openly talk about why they were sad. You just model the behavior that you want your kids to grow into or take on. If you model silence, and you model we don’t talk about this stuff, or you shouldn’t be sad, or you shouldn’t whatever, they’re not going to talk to you because they feel they can’t. I just try to be human. That’s my thing. I just try to be human and let my kids know that there’s nothing they can’t come to me and talk to me about it.
I may not like every conversation. Especially teenage years had a lot of very uncomfortable conversations, but they brought it to me. I feel I’ve done something right. If they feel they can come to me with sensitive issues or issues that I’m uncomfortable talking about, but they’re comfortable talking about it, that’s a good thing. I guess model that behavior. Let your kids see you be a good communicator, and then they can follow suit.
Will: That was great. That was perfect. Like you said, you hit the nail on the head as far as I can tell. Just be patient, be empathetic, those are your words. Then when they come to you, they’ll know you’re not going to bite their head off. That’s the whole point that you’re there for them to support them, to help them, and they need to know that.
Rob: Don’t shame them. Just how you would want if you were a kid. You want to feel safe, and you want to be able to talk about things that are important to you. They don’t always have the best timing, but my 16-year-old his time is two o’clock in the morning. He’ll wake me up at two o’clock in the morning and just want to talk to me for two hours, [laugh] but he’s talking to me. We got to schedule things a little better, but the end goal is that he’s talking to me. That’s a positive thing. Meet them where they are.
Will: Well, fantastic. Rob, this was a really, really deep conversation for me. I really enjoyed this. I think our listeners will as well. Thank you again for joining us.
Rob: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Will: Again, you can check out Rob at theautismdad.com. He’s got a ton of great content there, his own podcast, et cetera, Rob, thank you again.
Rob: Thank you. Take care.
Will: You too.