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Ralph speaks about Autism

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I'm here sharing a coke with friend and father of two Ralph, talking family, Autism, cattle and Billy Pinnell.

On family...

Big Guy, tell us about your family.

How do you explain Aspergers and High Functioning Autism to someone who is not familiar with the conditions?

Best put simply, Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders involving communication, social functioning and sensory issues, and Aspergers is at the Higher functioning end of that spectrum or "It's like that Sheldon guy from Big Bang Theory"

I asked a couple of people what they knew about Aspergers and both said it was a disease. Is it?

Disease is not a great word for it, as it has too many negative connotations. To our girls, we explain that they just think differently to other people, and that the struggle is working out how to adapt these thought patterns to everyday life.

What is the most common misconception about aspergers and HFA?

Two words - Rain Man. There's a saying in the community that if you've met one Autistic kid, then you've met one Autistic kid. The spectrum is fairly wide and covers a broad range of symptoms and behaviours. There are savants, but they are, as with the general population, rare. My children are young, so it will be another decade before I find out if they are "excellent drivers.'

A question via Facebook from a TackleNappy follower (we have thousands you know). Amber would like to know how you deal with the public's perception of your daughters, given it may not always be positive (due to general lack of understanding of Autism/Aspergers)?

Actually most people are very good. In some respects we're very lucky than Annie & Heidi are at the high functioning end of the spectrum, as especially in Annie's case, you would not know to look at her. We find it's more about letting people know beforehand, and explaining why the girls may not respond in ways you'd expect.

"Never under estimate the need for a Man-Cave, or baby wipes."

You once explained Aspergers to me using a cattle example (no seriously), can you share that example with TackleNappy?

It's part of the whole "thinking differently" idea. I think when we had that conversation, Temple Grandin wasn't as high in the zeitgeist, but her story is a good example. Temple, who is on the spectrum, made a name for herself as a designer of cattle abattoirs because she was able to "think like a cow".

How is your family life different to that of any average Aussie family?

Generally we're pretty similar, except that we do more prep work before going anywhere. We're not as sociable, that's about it.

How did you explain the diagnosis to your daughters and how did they take it?

My daughters despite both being on the spectrum, are polar opposites in approach and sensory needs. Heidi was diagnosed first at 2 ½, and for the most part probably can't remember a time before diagnosis. Annie was diagnosed probably a year after Heidi, and is a very bright, self aware kid. We actually had to have a sit down talk with her about it, and to be honest, she did not take it well. This is where approaching it as "difference" and not "disorder" is very important.

What are the general challenges your daughters face now and in the future?

Both girl's face challenges, Annie will have problems because she is so communicative and social that she "passes", but she has a lot of trouble understanding her own emotions, and her sensory needs. Heidi is so sensory, and so typically "Aspie" that she will stand out from the crowd. She needs more supervision than her sister and is more sensory.

As a family, what are the common challenges you face now and into the future?

It's hard to say. Parenting kids on the spectrum is a one step at a time deal. All we do is get them as much help as they can to get them to the next goal. I remember when Heidi would barely talk at all, our next goal is to get her to shut the hell up. It's a daily challenge.

There's plenty of high achievers who either have Aspergers or are speculated to. We're not talking Tom Cruise here, I'm referring to Mozart, Einstein, Edison, Bill Gates...seriously high achievers. Some add Michael Jackson to that list. Any thoughts or comments on this? Are you aware of other high profile people we can add to the list?

There's lot of speculation about famous people who might be on the spectrum, but outside of Temple Grandin, they're just that. I like to note that, while they're not "people" per se, I have noted a sudden surge in "Aspie" characters showing up on T.V. shows. This is generally a good sign, even if, like most minorities, they start off as a punchline before being treated seriously as a character. The notable difference is that show Parenthood, which is very good at portraying the struggles of families with Aspie kids, but unfortunately it's way too depressing to watch for families with Aspie kidsLogo.

"There is so much info out there on the net, some of it incredibly wrong, and almost always negative. Stuff With Thing is her way of letting people know that being on the spectrum is not a bad thing, it's just different, and that' s okay."

Your wife Marita is very active in sharing your families experiences with the world via What brought that about?

Marita's blog is her way of dealing with being a parent with kids who happen to be on the spectrum with a focus on being positive. There is so much info out there on the net, some of it incredibly wrong, and almost always negative. Stuff With Thing is her way of letting people know that being on the spectrum is not a bad thing, it's just different, and that's okay.

On life...

I know of someone who once threw up in your Datsun 120Y. What would you do to him if you saw him again?

To be honest, vomit on a green Datsun could probably be classified as a decal. There's nothing I could to do him that the resultant hangover didn't already do. (I sincerely hope).

Did you know that when you were absent from year 10 one day, Mr Lawrence read out one of your assignments (something about eating peas) and told the group he was giving you a C-. The class, lead by me, disagreed and we managed to pursuade him to give you a B-? That grade could have changed your life and you never thanked me for it.

You're not the only person to lay claim on that B-. Like most of year 10, I barely remember writing that assignment, or any for that matter. I was a ridiculously bad student, still am, as evidenced by the remarkably long time it's taken to get this interview done.

On work...

Early in your career you had the fortune of working with a legend of Australian Radio, perhaps THE legend of Australian radio. Tell us about working with Billy Pinnell.

Here is all you need to know about Billy Pinnell, he is quite simply the nicest person you will ever meet. It was my dream to work with him when I was a teenager, and the fact that I did, even for only six months, made working in that awful industry worth it. Billy's the kind of person, who, when doing an interview with Carlos Santana, would ask him how his dad was, whether he was doing okay, and actually care about the answer. There aren't enough Billy's in the world.

"Here is all you need to know about Billy Pinnell, he is quite simply the nicest person you will ever meet."

On Fatherhood....

When Marita fell pregnant with your first little person, what was the craziest advice you received from others?

I don't think we received that much advice from people, mostly just looks of disbelief and people saying to my wife "Seriously? With Him?'

Kid A resembled a frog in our first ultrasound picture so we affectionately called her Froggy. Did you have a name for your kids whilst they were still in the womb?

Not during incubation, no. But I have kept a policy going of creating a new nickname everyday, just to keep them on their toes. Common ones are "Goos", "Evils", Thing 1 & Thing 2", "Monkeys", "Lumpy" and on tough days "Things That Should Not Be"

What one word best describes how you felt when you became a father for the first time?

There's no English word I can think of. There might be one of those long german several-vowels-connected words that does it though, "raumschiffkartoffeln" possibly. Whatever mixes extreme joy, pride and relief.

Have you considered having more kids? Why/why not?

No. Me wife got spayed.

Also, with Marita's crohns disease, more children would not have been safe.

Did you select Christian or Middle names for a special reason?

By a sad coincidence both of my kids are named after my mum. Anne-Marie was mum's middle name. Heidi was also named after her because we found out we were pregnant with her two weeks after Mum died, we asked Dad's permission if we could use the name because it just felt right. Annie's middle name is Portia, after the character in Merchant Of Venice, because I'm a Shakespeare nerd. Heidi's is Louise, after Marita's maid of honour.

If they were boys, it would naturally have been Dylan, Jim or Slartibartfast.

What Nursery Rhyme keeps getting stuck in your head?

Not nursery rhymes. Busta Rhymes, certainly, the opening verse of "Gimme Some More" is like the I Ching to me.

Which children's book do you secretly like to read (mine's The Grufallo)?

The Owl & The Pussycat. Partially because we've memorized it, partially because it feels slightly filthy.

I was lucky enough to have known your parents, care to tell us a little about them?

Mum and Dad were high achieving sportspeople who gave it all up to raise a large family. My mother was cursed by not being born into a free enough society that she could be a Lutheran Pastor, as she had enough spirit to free style a sermon at any given moment, while also having the care and love to tend to a large flock without breaking her stride. (I note that her funeral required 3 pastors, 1 priest and an Anglican minister.) Dad was, and always will be my prime example of what it takes to be a provider for a family. Dad worked, that is what he did, he worked until he body told him he couldn't work anymore. He could be absent minded, but there was not an inch of malice in him. They loved each other like no movie could explain. I miss them everyday.

"Mum and Dad were high achieving sportspeople...they loved each other like no movie could explain. I miss them everyday."

Thinking back to your childhood, what are your strongest and fondest memories of your own father?

As a child: Sitting in church resting my head against his arm and listening to his voice resonate through his body as he sang.

As a teenager: Sitting in the cabin of the truck, watching him slowly drift to sleep as he drove.

If I asked this same question of your kids in 30 years time, what response would you hope for? What response do you think I'd get?

Heidi: Short response, tangent regarding whatever she watched that morning before quickly forgetting the question.

Annie: Long response, mentions of why it's not fair that Heidi got a different memory to her.

To Finish up...

As a father, what's the best advice you can give other fathers?

Always make the kid's mother as much tea or coffee as she requires or demands.

As a father of kids with Aspergers and HFA, what's the best advice you can give anyone about interacting with kids with these conditions?

Get as much info from the parent or guardian before you meet up. Find out what the kid likes, and what will set him off. As I said before, every kid on the spectrum presents differently.

As a son, what's the best advice you can give to your kids regarding maintaining a strong relationship with their father?

Find a hobby or activity you can share, even if it means sitting together in silence. Get more than controller for the xbox and learn to appreciate old movies.

Do you have anything else regarding being a father that you would like to share with TackleNappy?

Never under estimate the need for a Man-Cave, or baby wipes.

Would you like to write a guest post for TackleNappy?

The romantic in me says Joseph Frietzl.

Lastly, if we were to send you an "I Love TackleNappy" T-shirt, do you swear to send us back a picture of you wearing it?

Do you have enough yardage of fabric to construct such a t-shirt?

Big Guy, greatly appreciate your time and thank you so much for your valuable insights on the topic of autism and parenting.


Related Articles & Links

Follow Ralph on Twitter

Follow Marita and Stuff With Thing -, on Facebook, on Twitter

Temple Grandin - Wiki and

Billy Pinnell on Twitter

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Last modified on Wednesday, 25 January 2012 22:42

Bucky is a proud triple dad to three girls aged eight and under (Bookworm, Foghorn and Boo). He left the full time corporate world in late 2012 and he's not sure whether he's a SAHD or a WAHD, but either way he's spenidng more time at home with his family. Once upon a time Bucky played guitar for a garage band, now he can only play nursery rhymes.

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  • Comment Link David Wednesday, 07 March 2012 21:42 posted by David


  • Comment Link Marty Sunday, 22 January 2012 22:15 posted by Marty

    very well done, as the parent of an Aspie I fully understand the need for everyone to take one pace back and relax. All we need to do for our kids is make a clearer perception of what they can achieve. I once saw a T-Shirt of an Autistic child that read " Don't Dis my ability", I don't think it can be said any better than that!!!


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