By Elliott and Jake Potter
HERStory contributor Elliott Potter shares many connections with his son Jake–a love of athletics, journalism degrees from the same college and a passion for music. Now they’re also bonded by challenges in the development of Jake’s 3-year-old son, Landon.
During National Autism Awareness Month, they both reflect on their early experiences with young Landon, whose story is still being written.
Elliott: Raising my son Jake was so easy that I started imagining I could be a natural-born parenting expert. He is smart, considerate, athletic and musically gifted. My contributions to his upbringing–all the way into manhood–must have hit all the right notes. It only follows.
So bring on the grandkids. Grandpa would work his magic with them, too.
Landon Brooks Potter made the scene three years ago. He looked a lot like me and a little like Jake – so I thought, and a few others agreed. He was a streaking ray of sunshine who could light up a room.
As he began taking wobbly steps toward toddler-hood, I noticed that I couldn’t hold his attention for very long. We would share a book or toss a ball occasionally. He would sit in my lap for a minute or two to watch Puppy Dog Pals, the way Jake and I used to watch Batman cartoons. For the most part, however, Landon seemed too busy for time with Grandpa.
After a while, I realized it wasn’t just me. Landon was a young boy living life his way; he didn’t have much interest in following Grandpa’s script. I struggled with this reality, and my parenting ego suffered a huge blow. I did notice Jake stepping up to the plate, while I became mostly an interested observer during my visits.
I wasn’t disappointed, but increasingly I was worried. OK, maybe I was a little disappointed: Adorable pics for Facebook were nice; a real bond would be much better.
Jake never said much about the situation; he was locked in on his role as Landon’s dad. We finally talked at length, and I learned that interventions were ongoing to work on Landon’s verbal skills. Jake and I never have labeled Landon’s issues in our conversations. We’ve talked the developmental talk about the spectrum and such, but nothing precise.
Once I asked too many questions, and Jake told me I should consider doing a little research on my own. Point taken.
I had done some prior reading about the topic of autism, but I never could pin down exactly what information was relevant. I guess I’ve been looking for a remedy, when in fact there is nothing to cure. Landon isn’t Jake; Landon is Landon. I guess it bothered me that Jake didn’t see anything “wrong.”
Now I know that I was the one who was wrong. I realize that Jake has focused on his son’s needs the way I once focused on his. That doesn’t require parenting expertise; it only requires a dad’s love.
A common thread in this generational tale has been music. Jake picked up my love of music and developed it further into actually playing and performing. Landon has that love, too; right now it produces spontaneous dancing. I think it’s going to lead to something else. Now that I’m paying better attention, I’ve noticed he has other gifts, as well. And I appreciate moments–the tug on my hand, the short-but-sweet eye contact.
As it turns out, maybe Grandpa did a pretty good job. I helped to raise the right son for raising Landon. Jake learned his lessons well; now he and Landon are going to teach Grandpa a few.
Jake: There’s a special language between parent and child. Spoken words cannot comprehensively tell the story. Sometimes a knowing look or a pat on the shoulder is the right way to say what you mean.
My son started early intervention services shortly after his second birthday. His therapy focused primarily on expressive language–using words and gestures. I struggled with the emotional weight of it at first. Was I responsible? Should I be reading to him more?
Before Landon was born, I made a playlist of songs I wanted him to discover early. I grew up around music. For me, it became a second language. We didn’t have any musical instruments around the house growing up, but my parents encouraged me to pick up drums and the guitar.
Becoming a parent was an opportunity to impart some musical teachings of my own. Landon and I wore that playlist out quickly. How many babies have heard the entire catalog of the Beatles before their first birthday?
At some point along the way, I realized my impromptu performances on acoustic guitar–played not to Madison Square Garden, but to a giggling boy seated on the living room floor–were therapeutic for both of us. Chord progressions became conversations.
Landon quickly expressed a love for country and folk sing-a-longs. When I would play one of his favorites, a song by the Turnpike Troubadours called “Every Girl,” he would dance right up to me and help strum the guitar. Just as quickly, he learned to reach up and mute the strings when I started a tune not to his liking.
There’s not a single moment in time when everything clicks for a music student. You can see small light bulbs flicker. And one day, that novice might surprise you with a recital you didn’t expect. Aptitude comes over time, as does a deeper appreciation for the meaning behind the things we learn. Landon is a curious kid; now he finds new songs, usually sung by Elmo or Disney characters, to share with me.
We’ve found joy in taking the learning journey together as father and son. Music became part of the special language Landon and I share. It has helped bridge generations in our family, too. Landon likes to share new music with his grandfather. You can see the twinkle in both their eyes as they trade new songs to discover.
Landon’s expressive language has begun to develop quickly in recent months. His enthusiasm for babbling gave way to a stronger focus on saying the alphabet, colors and animals. There’s no bottling the happiness a parent feels when those milestones finally come.
Landon’s journey of growth continues on. Now I understand that fathers never really stop learning new melodies, either.
Elliott Potter is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Jacksonville N.C. He now co-hosts a weekly radio talk show in addition to freelance writing.
Jake Potter lives in Raleigh, N.C., where he works in communications for a major airport and plays acoustic gigs at local nightspots.
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