The gift of parenting an autistic son: Q&A with political journalist Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier is an American Catholic layman and political journalist who serves as National Journal senior political columnist and is a member of the Knights of Columbus. A former Washington Bureau Chief and White House reporter for the Associated Press, he is a regular guest on political talk shows ranging from NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS's "Face The Nation" to FOX News Special Report and MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

Mr. Fournier began his career in Arkansas, covering then-Gov. Bill Clinton before moving to Washington in 1993, where he covered politics and the presidential administrations of Mr. Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Mr. Fournier also served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where he co-wrote the New York Times bestseller Applebee's America. He now serves on the Harvard IOP advisory board. Mr. Fournier holds the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award for coverage of the 2000 elections, and he is a four-time winner of the prestigious White House Correspondents' Association Merriman Smith Memorial Award.

Mr. Fournier’s newest book, Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations, was published April 12 by Harmony as a personal testimony of his relationship and life lessons as a parent with an autistic son in the context of his journalism career. It is a New York Times bestseller. On May 25, I interviewed Mr. Fournier by email about the book.

What inspired you to write this book?

My wife, Lori. If Tyler is the star of Love That Boy, Lori is the hero. It was her idea to send Tyler and me on a series of road trips (I called them guilt trips). “You’ve got to step up,” she said as we walked out of the doctor’s office, having just received Tyler’s autism diagnosis. She wanted me to spend more time with Tyler and expose our son to the wider world.

She thought writing about the trips would be a nice thing for us to leave behind so that, years from now, Tyler would know how much we love him.

Who is your audience?

Every mother and father who dragged baggage from their childhoods into parenthood, or who filled themselves with expectations for their kids during pregnancy and beyond, or whose expectations shaped and sometimes misshaped their children, filling them with guilt, anxiety and feelings of isolation.

That is, all parents.

Your son is the focus of this book. What can you tell us about him?

He is amazing. He’s brilliant, kind-hearted, loyal, funny and utterly guileless. Tyler also is socially awkward, inwardly focused, disorganized and often frustrating. These are all attributes of somebody with high-functioning autism, particularly Asperger’s syndrome, and they’re not what I expected in a son. I thought I’d raise a jock, just like my Dad did. I didn’t know how to relate to this stranger we called Tyler until I realized—thanks to Lori’s project and the agonizing process of producing Love That Boy—I had to meet Tyler where he was, not where I wanted him to be.

He’s not my idolized son.

He’s my ideal one.

What does the title Love That Boy mean and why did you pick it?

When Tyler was about 5 years old, long before his diagnosis, I took him, his two sisters and Lori to the White House to meet President George W. Bush. As per tradition, the president wanted to thank my family for their sacrifice while I covered the White House, a beat I was leaving to cover the 2004 re-election campaign. As soon as Tyler walked into the Oval Office, he started talking about Bush’s dog, Barney, and other dogs—and wouldn’t stop. I winced. I was afraid he was wasting the president’s time and that he might be embarrassing himself. Or, God forbid, me.

As my family walked out, Bush saw my discomfort and grabbed me by the hand. “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes. I thought I knew what he meant. I didn’t. It took me years to understand.

You see, I thought he meant “Love that boy despite his quirks—despite the fact that he is different.” Now I know the lesson: “Love that boy because of what makes him different.” It’s a universal lesson—one for all moms and dads: What makes your kids different is what makes them special.   

Your subtitle is “What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations.” What are some of the parental expectations you talk about in reference to your son?

I like to think Love That Boy has a uniquely personal story about the causes and costs of outsized parental expectations. What we want for our children—popularity, normalcy, achievement, genius—often crowds out what they truly need: grit, empathy, character.

One example: Did you know that of all Google searches starting with “Is my 2-year-old …,” the most common next word is “gifted?” We love our kids so much that sometimes we want too much. Intellect is no longer a gift to parents. It’s a commodity. If moms and dads had their way, genius would be a standard accessory; every kid would be one.

And with those expectations comes pressure that makes life harder on our kids and parenting harder on us. For some of our children, it’s killing them. The next parent who Googles “Is my 2-year-old gifted?” should get a curt response: “Your 2-year-old is a gift.”

Who are the two presidents mentioned in the subtitle and what are some things they taught you?

Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Despite his legendary ability to connect with voters, Bill Clinton was surprisingly awkward with Tyler, which got me thinking: If one of the greatest social animals in political history can exhibit the traits of autism, even if only in a brief meeting, why am I so tied in knots about my son’s rough edges? It was Bush who was a model of empathy—asking Tyler questions, listening closely and seizing on the moment to get Tyler to talk about his future. He taught Tyler the power of self-deprecating humor (a great lesson for a bullied boy). He showed me the power of presence.

What are the “eight road trips” and do they fit here?

Let me answer that by first explaining the book’s structure. Each of the first six chapters delves deeply into a particular expectation, something we want our kids to be: normal, genius, popular, superstar, successful and happy. The final three chapters are the attributes we should be cultivating in our kids—the things we need. Those are grit, empathy and acceptance.

Each chapter starts with a short essay from one of the road trips, and each of those essays shows Tyler and me struggling with the chapter’s expectation. So the first chapter, “Normal,” opens with a heartwrenching scene from Tyler’s brief visit with President Obama, when Tyler looked into my eyes and said, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.” From there, we go to the home or libraries of John and John Quincy Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, John Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

While my family’s story is the unifying thread, Love That Boy includes heartwrenching interviews with other parents, advice from child development experts and my analysis of the latest social science research on parental expectations.

What have you learned about parental expectations from your son?

So much. The book is crowded with examples but I guess the biggest is how to accept Tyler for who he is, not what I wanted him to be.

What are some blessings you’ve received from God as father of an autistic son? 

So many. The first is his autism. Yes, I consider the condition a blessing. While I understand why parents of more severely afflicted kids might think differently, I would not want Tyler “cured.” He is a great kid—full of goodness and grace—because of his condition, not despite it.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in parenting an autistic child?

Early in the project, Lori and I realized that much of what is challenging about parental expectations and parenting in general is not unique to special needs children. These are universal issues.

Sure, there are financial costs and personal frustrations the come with raising an autistic child, but the challenges that really matter—such as how does a dad connect with a son who is nothing like him—are tough for any parent to master.

How has your Catholic faith influenced your approach to being a husband and dad?

Profoundly—in two ways. First, practically: The Knights of Columbus Council 2473 in Arlington, Va., is unusually active and tightly knit. I am a “Red Coat” volunteer at the council bar and community hall. Tyler’s first job was at the council’s summer day camp. For years, Lori and I had dinner alone at the council home. On one such “Date Knights,” I turned on an electronic recorder and interviewed her about the kind of husband and father I had been. For once, I asked the right questions and listened. The quotes you see in the book are from that session. So the Knights is our community of faith, our sanctuary.

Second, spiritually: My faith helps me understand the unique gift of every life, a grounding that helped me find the humility, grace and courage to “step up,” as Lori said, and hold myself to account. My favorite line in the book is the one I quoted to you earlier: The next parent who Googles “Is my 2-year-old gifted?” should get a curt response: “Your 2-year-old is a gift.” That is a sentiment based in my faith.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

They are not perfect. Their kids are not perfect. Only one man could claim that mantle. By his example, we know that happiness isn’t pleasure; it’s doing good things that are hard over and over again.

By that definition, my son is one of the happiest people I know. As Tyler said, “My kind of happy.”

Who are some of the people, living or dead, who have influenced your faith most strongly?

My father and grandfather. Neither man wore his faith on his sleeve. They were private men. But they walked the walk.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about your experience as the father of an autistic son, what would it be?

Pray for me. Pray that I find the strength to be a better man, a better husband and a better father.

I met Pope St. John Paul II during President George W. Bush’s visit to the Vatican. He blessed me. I kissed his ring. It was one of the most powerful spiritual moments of my life. I can’t describe it.

From your perspective, what can Catholics and Americans in general do better to care for people with autism?

Recognize that these are all our children and, when they become adults, autistic people remain the responsibility of our entire community. That means more than prayers, charitable donations and small acts of kindness, though such things are profoundly important. It requires a much deeper financial investment from all of us—in the form of taxes—to support programs that allow autistic people to expose their unique talents which enrich a society. It’s not just charity; it’s smart economics.

What regrets do you have about the past?

That I didn’t recognize sooner what a treasure I had in all three of my kids, especially my youngest, Tyler.

What are your hopes for the future?

That I may grow to be as good of a man as my son.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Some of the tensions still troubling Liberian life have deep social and historical roots.
Kevin ClarkeMarch 24, 2017
“This bill is catastrophic for Catholic social teaching and particularly for the people who we’re called to serve,” Sister Carol Keehan said.
Michael O'LoughlinMarch 24, 2017
Facing one’s clinginess, having to let go—it’s the last lesson, the real revelation of the ascension.
Jim McDermottMarch 23, 2017
“If the church is not committed to child protection, our efforts at evangelization will be to no effect.”
Gerard O'ConnellMarch 23, 2017