Having a child with severe autism taught Dr Alan Watkins how to manage his own emotions, an important skill in leadership as in life.
One of the most painful moments of my life was realising my beautiful baby boy, Sam, had severe autism. My wife and I knew something was profoundly wrong when he was about 15 months old. Up to this point Sam had hit all the normal developmental milestones. Then, gradually, he disappeared. He became withdrawn, non-communicative and wouldn’t even look at us. He stopped recognising his own name and grew extremely anxious. It was as though he was trapped in a glass bubble.
We could see Sam becoming increasingly scared, at times terrified. He could see us but he simply couldn’t tell us what was wrong. He couldn’t communicate, and we couldn’t get through that glass bubble. We couldn’t tell him everything was going to be ok. We couldn’t soothe him, reassure him. We had to stand helpless on the side lines and watch him struggling in the world he had descended into.
Eventually he stopped communicating with us – he didn’t see the point. We were with him every day, but the Sam we had known and loved had gone forever, replaced by this scared, self-absorbed child, upset much of the time, screaming some of the time. It is not surprising that the divorce rate among the parents of autistic children is high. Most relationships don’t survive such a disaster. Many parents describe the experience as a “living death”. Your child is there but also gone.
The agony was daily and intense. But if you stay together, as we did, two things make it possible to survive. First, learning to manage your own emotions; really manage them. This is partly why we teach leaders this capability. When people who depend on you are struggling, you must manage your own emotions. Sam needed us to be better, and we got better fast.
The second thing is action. Sam is not helped by us descending into self-pity. He needs us to fight for him and we have fought fiercely for 22 years; to get him the support he needs to live a useful life; to help him connect to us, to come out of his bubble and engage with the world.
If we hadn’t taken these steps who knows what would have happened to him… and us. Today, Sam is still profoundly disabled. But he can tell us things, albeit in one-word sentences. And we still love him. After all, he is Sam. He is our Sam.
To watch Alan's session from this year's conference, as well as a Q&A with him and his fellow panellists, click here.