MENTAL HEALTH

How President Bush taught one journalist to treasure son diagnosed with Asperger's

Political columnist and author of 'Love That Boy' Ron Fournier talks about what he learned about parenthood from his autistic son, Presidents Clinton and Bush

 

Political columnist Ron Fournier may be best-known for his no-holds-barred approach to covering a presidency, or his ability to question the nation’s highest leaders despite political affiliation. However, for his latest work he turned the lens on himself and unexpectedly learned some parenting lessons from President Bill Clinton and President George Bush.

The book titled “Love That Boy,” explores the parental journey Fournier embarked upon with his son, Tyler, after he was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s. At just 12, Tyler had already been exhibiting signs of depression and Fournier began to question his parenting abilities and whether he had failed his son in some way. At the insistence of his wife, Lori, Fournier began spending more time with their youngest child. One of Tyler’s fixations is U.S. presidents, which led to father-son visits at presidential homes that became a learning experience for Fournier about parental expectations.

In the book Fournier explains that like many fathers, he had certain expectations for his only son. He expected him to excel in school, be popular and athletic. However, while Tyler was very smart, he was not doing well in school. He was also ostracized by peers because, like many people who have Asperger's, he missed social cues. He also hated sports, which was a devastating blow for Fournier who spent his own youth playing hockey with his brothers and father. There was a wide gap between what Fournier hoped his son would be and who Tyler really was.

Fournier told FoxNews.com that the trips taught him about both his own son, and about unrealistic and unfair expectations that parents place on their children.

"Do everything you can to find that magical line between pushing your kids, which you don't want to do, and guiding them, which you do," Fournier said.

Guiding Tyler came in the form of being an advocate for him. The therapist who diagnosed Tyler with Asperger’s helped explain to the Fourniers that if a public school admitted that they couldn’t offer tools to address Tyler’s needs in the learning process, they could choose alternative routes.

"What that is, is a signal to the public school officials that if they admit they can't give you these services, then you can take your money, your state and federal money, and go to a private school. And that was a little piece of leverage,” Fournier said. “As a political reporter I cover leverage and power for a living. I had no idea I had that kind of leverage.”

Tyler was admitted to H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, which is a country-run magnet school that offers a freer approach to education, which was well-suited for him. Tyler excelled and made friends, which proved to be the ideal "guide" for Tyler.

On the trips Fournier began to love the idiosyncrasies of his son, which he admitted had once made him embarrassed and uneasy – particularly ahead of a meeting with President Obama and the first lady. Through two encounters with Presidents Clinton and Bush, his love for Tyler’s uniqueness became more concrete. When Tyler met with Clinton, a man who is known for reading a room and being a great communicator, Tyler seemed bored by his speech on President Teddy Roosevelt. Fournier noted that Clinton seemed unaware of Tyler's social cues and "fixated" on the topic of Roosevelt, so much so that he jotted down in his notepad "IS BC AN ASPIE????"

"If Bill Clinton can be an imperfect social animal, one of the greatest social of beings out there, why am I so hung up on my kid's rough edges?" Fournier said.

The title "Love That Boy" came from a meeting Tyler and Fournier had with President Bush in the Oval Office in 2003. After admiring then-5-year-old Tyler's unique quirks and obsession with Barney, Bush's Scottish Terrier, the president told Fournier to "love that boy." At first Fournier took it as a quaint reminder to love Tyler despite his idiosyncrasies, but after meeting Bush again post-presidency, Fournier realized that he meant to love his son for these qualities.