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A dad learns to ‘Love That Boy’ when son diagnosed with Asperger’s

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In the latest addition to the “NewsHour” bookshelf, a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome leads one father to consider what kind of role he should play in his son’s life.

  • I recently spoke with Ron Fournier, journalist and senior political columnist for “The National Journal,” about his new book, “Love That Boy:

    What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations.”

    Ron Fournier, welcome.

  • RON FOURNIER, Author, “Love That Boy”:

    Thanks for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Your book has struck a nerve. I think it — maybe it’s because you bring us along on your journey to understand your son. How did you decide to do that?

  • RON FOURNIER:

    My wife said, you’re going to do this. My wife, Lori, is a remarkable woman who literally, the day we got him diagnosed, we were walking out of the doctor’s office, and all I was concerned about was how this was going to affect me, and can my boy not play sports, and all the things that a self-involved father might.

    And Lori said, it’s time to step up. You have got to step out and get him out in the world, where we can start learning things that we thought up until then — he was 12 at the time — that we thought were uncomfortable to him, but we just learned, because of the autism, was actually unnatural to him.

    And I had to step up and spend more time with him. I had spent a lot of time, as we do in this town — I’m on the road, away from the family. So she said, get out. I want you to go to presidential libraries, presidential sites.

    His fixation at the time was history. And that was the job, covering the presidency. It kept me away from him. So she sent us out on these road trips.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    People know what autism is, but they’re not as familiar with Asperger’s. Tell us what that is.

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Asperger’s syndrome is on the high end of the autism spectrum, meaning these are young men and women who are fairly functional, but they don’t have the social graces that we’re born with.

    They don’t know naturally how to make eye contact, how to modulate your voice, how to shake hands, how to hold a conversation and read the social clues coming off of somebody.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And why did your wife, Lori, think that taking Tyler, your son, around to visit your work, why did she think that would make a difference?

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Well, she knew that I had to be more involved in his life, in our children’s life. I had spent a lot of time working. And we had just learned from the doctor that, although the social graces aren’t inherent in Aspies, which is what they’re called, they can be learned.

    For one thing, these kids happen to be off-the-chart smart. If you get them in settings and constantly repeat to them, here’s how you shake hands, here’s how you look people in the eyes, here’s how you have a conversation, they can learn those things.

    So, we were right at the beginning of the process, literally within the first 15 minutes, and she said, get him out in the world.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have your son meet presidents, former presidents, but you do it in a very natural way.

    What do you think makes these encounters, these sessions Tyler has with, say, Bill Clinton, feel like a real conversation?

  • RON FOURNIER:

    I don’t think it was me. I think it was Bill Clinton and George Bush, and, to a briefer extent, he had a brief meeting with a — just a grip-and-grin at a Christmas party with the Obamas.

    It says something about the three of them, those three couples, or those three presidents and first lady Michelle Obama. I can be awfully cynical in my job. And I love holding powerful people accountable. And I’m proud of what I have done. But it’s easy to forget these are human beings who are public servants.

    And President Bush and Clinton, to different degrees, wanted to connect with Tyler. They were doing a favor, not for me. Neither one of them had anything to gain from me. But this was a young man who was struggling with autism, who had a fascination with the presidency.

    And so they did their best to connect with him. I think I have got to give them the credit.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You could argue, of course, this is a book for parents of children with special needs, to some extent.

    But it’s also really for parents of all kinds, parents with all kinds of children, because you write about parents today want their children to be successful, want their children to be happy.

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That really comes through loud and clear, that you’re saying to these parents, wait a minute. Stop before you get carried away here.

  • RON FOURNIER:

    What I try to do here was understand that my problem wasn’t Tyler’s autism. My problem wasn’t Tyler. My problem was me.

    I had certain expectations for my son that he couldn’t meet because of his condition. Oh, actually, he couldn’t because he’s not me. I have to help make him the best that he can be.

    So, then I — the more parents I talk to, the more child development experts I talk to, I realize that partly because of who we are and the baggage that we bring into parenthood, and partly because of the times that we live in, which are awfully scary to raise children, as you know, we have certain expectations, certain pressures that we put on all of our kids.

    We want them to be geniuses. We want them to be popular. We want them to have successful careers. We want them to follow us into our education paths. We want them to be happy, whatever that means.

    And the problem is, those expectations, if they’re misplaced, don’t just shape our kids. They can misshape our kids.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right. And this desire that they all go to Harvard, that they have lot of friends, they’re popular.

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Right. Social scientists will tell you — the science will tell you, you don’t want your kid to be popular. You don’t want your kids to have a whole — a big number of friends, because that often puts them in social situations, puts pressures upon them to stay in that A-list category. That leads them down the wrong path.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally, I want to ask you, how is Tyler doing today, and what does he think about this book, about the fact that you wrote it?

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Thanks for asking.

    He’s doing great. He is going to graduate from a public school here in Arlington very shortly here in June. And he’s looking forward to the next step in his life, which looks like it’s going to be probably a couple of community college classes, a little bit of work, a little bit of community service.

    It is going to take him a little bit longer than a “normal” child to make it on his own, but we think he’s going to get there. With the book, you know, he’s a typical — first of all, he’s kind of a typical teenage boy. He’s just involved in his own life.

    But it’s even more so with an Aspie. He’s really just into the present. So he appreciates the book. He had full veto authority over the book. He likes some of the attention he’s getting around it. We had a book party back in our hometown of Detroit last week that he got a kick out of taking part in that.

    But he doesn’t want to be a whole lot of attention. He jokes that he wants to be a covert celebrity, whatever that means.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • RON FOURNIER:

    So, he’s doing good. Thanks for asking.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Did he end up vetoing anything?

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Yes, actually, there was a couple passages in the book where — in the original manuscript. But, mainly, they were stylistic, where he thought I was making myself look too smart.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I won’t ask you what you left out.

    Ron Fournier, the book is “Love That Boy,” and it really is a remarkable book. Thank you.

  • RON FOURNIER:

    Thank you so much.

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