Children need a secure emotional and physical base with active support. They benefit from regular interactions with their caregivers to help them learn new things, reinforce their motivation, help them to branch out and try new activities. When caregivers are not around, there are missed opportunities for connection, sharing, teaching, reinforcing and loving. Prior to adolescence, parents are the most important connections that children have. Even during adolescence when the focus shifts more strongly to peers, parents still provide the secure moral and emotional base and support that teens need to separate and individuate.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Frazier. Thomas Frazier, Ph.D., joined Autism Speaks in April 2017 as chief science officer. He is responsible for the science portfolio, including grantmaking, the MSSNG genomic research project and the Autism Treatment Network. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Frazier has been involved for 11 years in evaluation, treatment and research focused on individuals with autism. Prior to joining Autism Speaks, he was the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
As a young child, I was exposed to several different environments, mostly out of economic necessity (my parents were young, both from rural areas and just starting their careers), including a rural trailer park, an urban town house complex and an upper middle-class suburban neighborhood. Because of this diversity, I learned quickly about different cultures, norms, expectations and the need to work hard to succeed.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
In 2006, my just turned 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism when he stopped speaking. I was already a clinical psychologist, seeing patients and doing research on ADHD and pediatric bipolar disorder. After my son’s early diagnosis, I shifted my career into autism — first as the research director and later as director of the Center for Autism at Cleveland Clinic, then as the chief science officer at Autism Speaks. As a parent of a child on the spectrum and as a researcher, I was drawn to Autism Speaks for its role as a driving force in advocacy and science for the autism community.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
Most of my time is spent overseeing our science and services staffs and collaborating on new initiatives. The rest of the time I am traveling for in-person meetings with researchers, colleagues, board members, donors and other autism stakeholders to talk about what Autism Speaks is doing to benefit people with autism and their families.
Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
Children need a secure emotional and physical base with active support. They benefit from regular interactions with their caregivers to help them learn new things, reinforce their motivation, help them to branch out and try new activities. When caregivers are not around, there are missed opportunities for connection, sharing, teaching, reinforcing and loving.
Prior to adolescence, parents are the most important connections that children have. Even during adolescence when the focus shifts more strongly to peers, parents still provide the secure moral and emotional base and support that teens need to separate and individuate.
Can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
When I am gone, my son with autism misses me but cannot express it verbally and does not know how to replace that time in his life. So, when I am not home, he will often act out more or have difficulty sleeping.
My neurotypical daughter connects well with my wife, but when I am traveling she also misses some of the bonding time that we spend together. For example, I have been taking her to practice driving in a local parking lot. She enjoys the lessons but is anxious all at the same time. I help to bring out a part of her that is willing to try scary things, so doing this activity with me makes it easier for her to learn.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
I am not familiar with the study cited in the Washington Post, but I suspect active time talking and connecting is what is meant by quality of time. I agree, although I would add that quantity is also important because it adds stability and security to the relationship so that the child knows that they can come to the parent when they need to, on their terms.
A recent example for me was when my daughter was upset about a situation at school. I had just returned home from travel and saw her in the living room. In a short 15-minute conversation, she was able to talk with me about what bothered her and process all the feelings she had toward the situation and her peers. Short but effective conversations matter, especially with adolescents who don’t want to spend huge amounts of time with their parents.
Another example are short walks I take with my son. Even though he is nonverbal, I can take a 30-minute walk with him so he can get his energy out, have fun with me that he expresses nonverbally and feel connected to me, allowing him to be less anxious and more comfortable.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
· If I need to check emails while they are home, I will read emails early in the day before my children are awake and active, and then I don’t respond to anything until late at night after they are asleep. This allows me to be present while we are together and not ruminating about work.
· We also go on walks in the park without our phones on so that we can talk and connect while exercising.
· Each week my wife and I allocate specific time to spend with each of our children, individually.
· My wife volunteers for driving our daughter and her teammates to and from sports activities and I volunteer to coach. This makes interaction more incidental and natural around important events in our daughter’s life.
· We also try not to be intrusive since there are times when any teenager wants to have their own time separate from their parents. So, we limit how much we do these things or spread them out, where possible.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
A good parent can put their interests aside for the development of their child.
· Not projecting ourselves onto our children, making sure our hopes and desires are separate from their hopes and desires, is one of the most important initial steps.
· Being very open about communication and normalizing feelings can also help.
· Setting strong moral boundaries but also teaching children how to atone when they make mistakes without being excessively punitive.
My daughter and wife recently had an argument where my daughter used inappropriate language. I told my daughter to go to her room and that I would speak with her when I was less upset. After five minutes, I went to her room and explained that she needed to apologize and make up for her behavior by doing some chores for her mom. She was contrite and apologized and did the chores. When she was finished, we got together and played games as a family to send the message that she had atoned and things were back to normal.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
Instead of pressuring my daughter to “dream big,” I take a different approach when discussing her future aspirations. I just let her know that possibilities are endless if she works hard and that it is better to focus on small accomplishments and build toward bigger things. Instead of focusing only on the end in mind, recognize that you get there through a relentless series of small acts, while being creative in identifying long-term possibilities.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”
Success is having a meaning for your life.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
The podcast “Making Sense with Sam Harris” is great because he covers a range of important topics –from addiction and behavior to culture and leadership — encourages debate and talks about how we can think better. He is also not afraid to challenge politically correct thinking.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The ox is slow, but the earth is patient.” To me this means that we need to keep working hard, even though things seem slow and rewards rarely come quickly. If we keep at it, then good things will happen. We often need to sow seeds and let them germinate.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My movement would be to get people to focus on doing things that matter and that serve those in our world who really need our support. We can solve a lot of problems if we focus our time and energy on what matters. Helping others is a great start.
Thank you for all of these great insights!