Acceptance: If It Doesn’t Mean Giving Up: What Does It Mean?

Psychologist Dr. Robert Naseef is a new columnist for He covers autism through the perspective of a professional in independent practice and a parent of someone on the spectrum. This is the first of his columns.

I thought I could never accept my baby’s autism. After 29 years there are times when I still wonder who my son might have been. Yet it seems like only yesterday when I held Tariq for the first time. My heart pounded with excitement as I held his soft body next to my heart and our eyes met. I had visions of playing baseball and building model airplanes together. Everything changed when the “autism bomb” hit and he began endless repetitive activities.

Read on for Dr. Naseef’s article!

He stopped sharing his joy of playing and stopped talking. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism and mental retardation. The impact sent family life veering sharply from the course we were on. That I would lose my perfect baby was beyond anything I could fathom. How could it be that he would grow to adulthood and not read or write or speak? I can remember believing that I would never smile or laugh again.

Parents need support and good services to come to terms with what is possible and what is not for their child. I could not have ever found peace without support. My wife Cindy, Tariq’s stepmom, weathered the storms of his autism with me and never wavered in her love. She knew autism from working in the field and helped me grasp the diagnosis I was trying desperately to deny. It took me two years before I could utter the word “autism.”

I learned deeply through my experience, what Kahlil Gibran meant in The Prophet when he wrote that joy and sorrow are inextricably woven together, for sorrow opens our hearts to the experience of joy in everyday life. Accepting that his condition would be enduring was imponderable. Nonetheless I learned the developmental approach of celebrating what he could do. This made a huge difference for our relationship. He became a happy child, and I learned to enjoy him and accept him as he was. When I played with him in the ways I thought were weird, he laughed and responded and was happy. When I constantly pushed him to look, to feel, to do the things that seem ‘typical,’ he was frustrated and cranky. The autism I hated with a vengeance refused to go away.

On the path to acceptance, I have learned many things that have helped me. My son taught me the meaning of unconditional love—to honor his sacred right to be loved for who he is, not what he has achieved lately, how he looks or how much money he will earn. I learned the lesson that hard work isn’t everything. That grief comes and goes. That anxiety and sadness come and go. That it takes time to heal a broken heart. That happiness and meaning can abound with acceptance. We don’t have to push away our painful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. I learned that acceptance does not mean giving up but rather learning to live with our mental and physical challenges. I still try to get Tariq to look at me, to sit with me, to communicate with me. And simultaneously, I offer to do the activities I know he will enjoy and offer the food he loves and the freedom for him to be himself. I don’t have control over the autism, but I do have a lot to offer in our relationship with my child who is living with this condition.

I have come to know that Tariq’s life does make a difference in the world. He is still my little boy. He still puts his head on my shoulder, and I have never stopped wanting to hear the sound of his voice. Yet I love him no less because of that and perhaps more in ways I could have never imagined. He has brought many kind people into my life and helped me to understand myself and others. He made me a better father and a better man. His greatest gift to me is a glimpse into the human heart where it is not who you know or what you know or what you have- -but who you are. My son has only ever spoken aloud to me once in a while—in my dreams; but this is how his autism has spoken to me every day.

Robert Naseef is a psychologist in independent practice. Special Children, Challenged Parents: The Struggles and Rewards of Parenting a Child with a Disability, his first book, has received international recognition. He has lectured internationally and appeared on radio and television. He is the co-editor of Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People with Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom (2006). Living Along the Autism Spectrum (2009) is a new DVD which features him along with Stephen Shore and Dan Gottlieb.

Dr. Naseef’s specialty is working with families of children with autism and other special needs. He has published many articles in scholarly journals and other publications. He has “a foot in each world” as the father of an adult child with autism. He has a special interest and expertise in the psychology of men and fatherhood. Through his experiences as a parent and as a professional, Robert is relates to both audiences and is a sought after speaker around the country.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, endorsed Special Children, Challenged Parents. In Rabbi Kushner’s words, “Writing with the wisdom of a mental health professional and the compassion of a loving father, Dr. Naseef has given us a book that will instruct and inspire us all.”

In 2008, Robert Naseef was honored by Variety, the Children’s Charity for his outstanding contributions over the past 20 years to the autism community. You can visit him on the web at

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