Our guest this week is Paul Carroll, of Situate, RI who is senior HR director at CVS Health, founder of Autism Dadvocate and father of an Autistic son.
Paul and his wife, Jennifer, have been married for 20 years and are the proud parents of Vaughan(16) who is Autistic.
Professionally, Paul is an Executive Director of Talent Manager at CVS Health.
Informed by being a father to a neurodiverse child and guided by his faith, Paul has been called to create AutismDadvocate.org, a non-profit an online support forum for dads with children with autism and about the commonalities we all face as fathers. They host a blog, a podcast and workshops.
That’s all on this episode of the SFN Dad To Dad Podcast.
Email – Paul.Carroll@CVSHealth.com
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-carroll-autismdadvocate/
Website – https://www.autismdadvocate.org/
Podcast – https://www.autismdadvocate.org/podcast
Tom Couch: [00:00:00] Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast, working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at HorizonTherapeutics. com.
Paul Carroll: You can never go wrong from a place of curiosity. You literally cannot go wrong. If any of our listeners have someone in their personal circles or professional network that is a parent of an autistic child, just lean in with curiosity. Listen and learn. And boy, you will gain a friend for sure.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest this week, Paul Carroll, an Executive Director at CVS Health, the father of Vaughn, 16, who’s autistic, and the founder of AutismDadvocate.org, an online support forum for dads of children with autism. Now, say hello to the host of the Dad to Dad Podcast, and the founder of the Special Fathers Network, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers [00:01:00] mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad.” Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@ 21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: So let’s hear now this intriguing conversation between Paul Carroll and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with Paul Carroll of Situate, Rhode Island, who is an Executive Director of Talent Management at CVS Health, the father of a son with [00:02:00] autism, and founder of Autism Dadvocate. Paul, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Paul Carroll: Oh, thank you. I am delighted to be here, and I am such a fan of you and the work that you do. I am so looking forward to our conversation.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Jennifer, have been married for 20 years and are the proud parents of Vaughn, 16, who is autistic. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Paul Carroll: Yeah, a lifelong New Englander. Very typical, we’re very provincial people. So I grew up in the smallest state in the country, Rhode Island. I went to school at Boston College and grew up in a very male-dominated family. So I am the youngest of three brothers. My father is the oldest of eight. They are local to Rhode Island [both chuckling] as well. Upbringing, very traditional New England, very small town, and we’ll get there. But David, I got my master’s degree at the University of Illinois, which I know is your state. That’s probably the biggest venture I’ve ever made in my life.
David Hirsch: Yeah we’ll circle back to the University of Illinois for obvious reasons. But I’m curious to [00:03:00] know what did your dad do for a living?
Paul Carroll: It’s so traditional, my father worked for the state of Rhode Island for, I want to say, 42 years. And it’s so fascinating, men of our generation, we’re not familiar with that sort of, you leave college, you get a job, you stay and you retire and you receive the gold watch. That is my father. That is my father to a tee. [David laughing] And ironically, David, that is my father-in-law. My father-in-law worked for the IRS for 40 plus years, got that right out of college, worked for the IRS and retired. So lifelong vocations, never made a change.
David Hirsch: That is different than today. And especially with the type of work that you do at CVS in the HR function. People are not thinking lifelong careers, right? You’re just happy to get them trained, get them up to speed, make them productive employees, and hopefully get a return on your investment from whatever training you’ve run people through.
Paul Carroll: I think at the time, yeah, at the time of this recording, I think it’s fair to say the labor force is fickle. It is changing. [00:04:00] It is the probably most monstrous change in how people think about work since COVID, in a hundred years. So you’re a hundred percent right.
David Hirsch: So I’m curious to know, how would you describe your relationship with your dad?
Paul Carroll: Very traditional, very cordial, very respectful, not intimate by any stretch.
David Hirsch: So is he not a verbal person? Is that part of it or…?
Paul Carroll: Correct. I would say very traditional. I’m fascinated by this topic because of the fact of just how different, how differently generations look at fatherhood. Just that term, how we define it. I think my father’s a traditionalist. I think he would define it as I was the breadwinner. I did my job.
David Hirsch: Yeah what I hear you saying is that the expectation or role of fathers for generations past were that they were the breadwinners, they were the providers, put a roof over your family’s head, you provide food and clothing and make sure that they live comfortably, however you might describe that and check the box, right?
Paul Carroll: Certainly.
David Hirsch: And I think much more is expected [00:05:00] of men or fathers today, for good and bad. I think it’s for dad’s benefits as well as the kids’ benefits that dads are more engaged from the time of birth and throughout the younger life of our children. And then hopefully that just carries on into adulthood and grandparenting, if it’s meant to be.
Paul Carroll: Certainly.
David Hirsch: So when you think about your dad, are there some important takeaways from your relationship? Lessons learned that you’ve tried to incorporate in your own parenting?
Paul Carroll: I think the role modeling that I received was particularly in that arena. The breadwinning, the person who is really taking care of the family. I see that as my role. I take it on. And maybe that’s an archaic mode of thinking because it drives some of us as fathers just nuts when we’re paying bills, we’re paying healthcare bills, we’re constantly worried about the economy. Are we saving enough for retirement? Are we saving enough for education? But I think that probably is the biggest takeaway I’ve received from my father. It’s that is my job. That is my role in this family.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Let’s take [00:06:00] a step back. Four out of every 10 kids in America are growing up without their dads. So not everybody has embraced that. What I hear you saying is that one of our primary objectives is just to be responsible dads. Be there for your family. Be present. And that can take on a lot of different connotations from the being responsible financially, and then additionally – I think this is what society expects of dads these days – is that we’re present physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And for some people, myself included, I don’t consider myself an emotional creature. And I think about a big part of my life is being a financial advisor, and I’ve convinced myself that people don’t want an emotional financial advisor.[Paul laughing] You want somebody with nerves of steel, right? Somebody who might actually be closer to an air traffic controller-type of personality, right? Somebody who can deal with a lot of things going on at the same time and not get caught up in the emotion of things. But I think what might be an asset in the work environment in many of our cases might not be an asset at home. [00:07:00] Being able to relate to people and not only understanding them from an emotional standpoint, but being able to express yourself because we are role models. And if we’re being stoic, more traditionally stoic, we’re not really demonstrating how we deal with our emotions, or how we deal with our frustrations or challenges. So just being more communicative, I think is what dads are expected to be.
Paul Carroll: It’s a really interesting point what you say vocationally. Yes, I want my financial advisor, I want my airline pilot, I want my air traffic controller, I want the surgeon to be unbiased and in check of his or her emotions. But those qualities may not serve us well personally. And I know we’re going to go there, but I do think there’s a shift not in just fatherhood, but what it means to be a man.
I’ll candidly tell you in my role of Talent Development, one thing we’re learning coming out of COVID is we need our leaders in corporate America to demonstrate empathy. They have to, given the whirlwind of the [00:08:00] pandemic and COVID and the racial upheaval and the political upheaval. And we need leaders that can actually relate to their teams. Really interesting shift going on. So many things going on in the corporate world. I know we’re not here to talk about it, but it’s fascinating overlap, isn’t it, David?
David Hirsch: Absolutely. And again, just a reminder that we wear many hats, right? As moms do as well, right? They’re not just the nurturers, but moms have a lot of different responsibilities as well.
I’m thinking about other father influencers and I’m wondering what, if any, influence your grandfathers had first on your dad’s side and then on your mom’s side,
Paul Carroll: They were big influences in very complex ways. So I can say with pride, both of them were veterans. So my grandfather on the American side, my father’s father, fought in the Pacific in World War II. And if anyone, if any of our listeners are historians, the Pacific warfare in World War II was just purely savage. And clearly, David, he came back with severe [00:09:00] PTSD. They didn’t have a name for it back then, but he was incredibly damaged. He came back alcoholic, he was explosive, withdrawn, and I know that it had a huge influence on my father’s upbringing and his seven siblings, and even to a little bit me. I think I even shared with you there were a few occasions where I was just truly afraid of him. Could see the dark shadows come over him at times. And he ultimately died of cirrhosis of the liver. He died from his alcoholism.
The other grandfather is on my maternal side, which is all French, and he fought in World War II against the Nazis. He was a hundred kilometers south of Paris. His village was invaded and occupied by the Nazis. And my memories of my French grandfather are so different. He was a loving man. He was a gentle man, subtly humorous man. But what I share with you is when he started to age and hit dementia and Alzheimer’s, he became quite explosive. In fact, he would say to my grandmother, [00:10:00] the Nazis are breaking down the front door. This is at the age of 72. So if you think about it, Dave gosh, that must’ve been at least 50 years. And so the searing memories of the war never left him. And he actually died by suicide, no doubt from some of that trauma.
So I have enormous respect for my grandparents being veterans and the sacrifices they made and understanding the damage that they had endured. And another influence it had on me is I don’t think they really had a forum to share just how traumatic warfare can be. And it ultimately just was corrosive to the end of their lives.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. It’s touching to hear you recall these stories about your grandfathers and the similarities serving in World War II from different military perspectives. And then sadly, the impact, the negative impact that it had on them, either immediately or latently. And there were a lot of sacrifices that men and women made as well during [00:11:00] World War II and beyond. And it’s hard to measure or calculate the impact, right? You can make some observations like you have. It affects more than just the individuals. It affects their spouses, it affects their children, future generations for that matter. Not all negatively, but in many cases there’s sort of a taint, right, to the experience? And how we process that or put it in perspective I think is one of the challenges. But it sounds like you had a healthy respect for both your grandfathers, and no doubt that’s had an influence on you as well.
Maybe there’s a heads up about the use of alcohol because of your paternal grandfather, and then I think what I heard you say about your maternal grandfather is that when dementia takes over, and we witnessed this with our parents as they were toward the end of their lives, the filter comes off. They’re not in complete control of their thoughts. Now you’re hearing things that you might not have otherwise heard. And it’s just revealing. I think that’s the way I think [00:12:00] about it. It’s not all negative.
Paul Carroll: Yeah. And David, I always think of that particular generation as a generation that they never talked about it. And they buried it and buried it. And it is interesting in hindsight to realize that even after 40, 50 years, you can bury as much as you can. But I always use the metaphor, it’s like taking a stuffed inflatable toy and pushing it underwater in a swimming pool or an ocean. It’s going to come back up at some point. And I think it came back up with both my grandfathers.
David Hirsch: Oh yeah. Lessons learned. Any other men that served as a father figure, role models as you were growing up?
Paul Carroll: No. And I share this candidly because I think it’s what’s going to drive some of the conversation we’ll have later on. I think this is why I’m such a fan of your work, David, because I think there’s a real need for more mentoring, more role models, more figures you can lean into. Common term I use is it takes a tribe. And so I think when I share candidly some of my struggles, I think it’s because I did not have that teacher, coach, mentor, [00:13:00] uncle, or whoever that was that could really guide me. And so therefore, it drove a lot of what I’m doing with Autism Dadvocate. If I don’t get it, I will create it.
David Hirsch: I love it. We’ll get into that in a few minutes. So you mentioned earlier that you took a degree from Boston College and then you have a master’s degree from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Human Resources and Organization Development. And I’m wondering, where was it that you thought your career was pointing you when you got your education?
Paul Carroll: Undergrad, like a lot of people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And actually at Boston College, I was pre-law and realized it’s the best mistake I’ve ever made. [David chuckling] I did not go to law school. I actually was in the process of taking the exams and applying. And I can say with perfect clarity, I would have been, number one, miserable as an attorney, and number two, I would have been really bad at it. I would have been a bad attorney. So at that time, like a lot of people, I just needed a job. I needed income. Goes to what we said earlier about the breadwinner. I needed income and I just worked at a bank and a call [00:14:00] center. And fumbled into that job. Enjoyed investment services and enjoyed training. I loved training people. And so that career launched me to doing more of what we call classic technical training and development. And that was my start of career in learning and development and talent development. From there, I went to another investment company, did more talent development, then led a team in a manufacturing organization. Got my master’s at the University of Illinois, and then really started to do the work that I do now in talent development at a Fortune 10 company. I always find career pathing very fascinating because when young people are always struggling, I’m like, don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, just start over. Nobody should have it figured out by college.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Good advice. And from somebody who has a lot of experience in the HR area, from a training and talent development, it’s easy when you look back, you can connect the dots, as that young person finishing high school, going to college, potentially coming out of [00:15:00] college. You don’t have all the answers, right? Why would you have all the answers really?
Paul Carroll: No.
David Hirsch: Some of the lucky ones maybe have an inkling for the career they want to pursue, or what some of their talent is. And then others just have to find their way. It’s a little bit of a trial and error. And maybe the more experiences you have early on, high school and maybe working during college for that matter, helps you shape what you don’t want to do. That’s part of trying to figure out what you do want to do, right? If you try enough things, you have a better sense for the direction you should be pointed in. You’ve been at CVS for the better part of 14 years?
Paul Carroll: 14 years.
David Hirsch: And you’ve served in a number of different capacities, and I’m wondering, what is it that you’re focused on currently?
Paul Carroll: A few things. As I mentioned, the workforce with COVID since 2010 has blown up. So I’m leading essentially an enterprise initiative. The organization is about 300,000 colleagues to develop a leadership development framework for every tier of leader across [00:16:00] every BU of the organization. And this is important work. We’re really almost blowing up everything because the skills and competencies necessary to be successful today and in the future are so radically different than what have made companies. Look at what’s going on in the economy. Look at the disruption in the Fortune 500. So it’s crazy, exciting work. It’s big work. We may be training up to 20,000 leaders a year over the next several years. So that is a huge focus of what I’m doing.
David Hirsch: So I’m curious to know, how did you and Jennifer meet?
Paul Carroll: The classic: seeing each other in the hallway and finding each other interesting and then dating and progressing from there. So I wish I had a good story for you David, but it was a classic office romance.
David Hirsch: Okay. Let’s talk about special needs, first on a personal level and then beyond What is Vaughn’s diagnosis and how did it come about?
Paul Carroll: It was no red flags or indicators. Early on as I like to say, right around the age of five or six, maybe what I call just certain quirks or peccadilloes. Nothing that would certainly be a red [00:17:00] flag. My son was very verbal. He was easy to toilet train. Just a wonderful child. As he got older in school, he was not very social and just a few little things. And his gross and fine motor skills were not nearly as developed as his classmates. When I observed him on a playground, I thought, God, the other kids are just out gunning him and anything on the playground.
Again, nothing to be concerned about. He definitely had some auditory and kinesthetic quirks. And when we brought him into his PCP, he was diagnosed with something called sensory processing disorder. Just very sensitive to certain sounds, certain sights. And then it started to progress to a point where I really was pushing the issue.
As they get older, as I like to say, David, nowhere to hide when you start hitting the age of 10 or 11. Those things that are quirky, now were not quite so quirky. And I always share this story where my son and I shared the same PCP at the time. I looked at him right in the eye and I said, Dr. Crumback, do you think my son should be screened [00:18:00] for autism? And he looked me in the eye and says, no, Paul, your son has sensory processing disorder. I do not think he has autism. And here’s what’s fascinating, David. When you hear what you want to hear, you hold on to it. So what I mean by that is I said to my wife in my car, see honey, nothing to be worried about. Sensory processing disorder.
Later on, there was a whole journey in getting him diagnosed that was long, arduous, emotionally wrenching. Completely on your own, navigating this incredibly complex healthcare system. So it was really right around the age of 11 that we truly got the diagnosis. And by then it was almost ridiculous to even look at the rubrics data. It was like we already knew by then. I don’t need a 60-page document with all these statistical T-charts telling me the likelihood. I already knew.
David Hirsch: Yeah thanks for sharing. That is a pretty circuitous route to getting a diagnosis. And I don’t know if that’s common or maybe because Vaughn is now 16, that the tools that [00:19:00] people were using, the diagnoses that were taking place a decade or more ago, were not as comprehensive. But it does leave you with some questions in your mind, right? Which is, hey, if we had known earlier, would we have done anything different?
Paul Carroll: Exactly.
David Hirsch: What would the therapies have been? Occupational therapies or other therapies that you might have taken advantage of for his benefit. Again, everybody’s situation is a little bit different. The way of thinking about autism or the way people in the autism community communicate, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism, right? There are some similarities, but it is a very wide range or spectrum, like some people describe it. Was there some meaningful advice that you got along the way that you can look back and say that was really helpful or that was a turning point of sorts?
Paul Carroll: Again, I wish I had, and I did not. I will share that journey was emotional. It was very lonely. And I don’t… we were talking about the role of a father being the keeper of the family. I did not like being [00:20:00] so ignorant and so clumsy in this process. And I’ll just share candidly that isolation. Really, I always talk about the valley of my life, which was May of 2018. It was really just because of a confluence of certain things going on in my personal life and my professional life. But I’m sharing this with you because I thought to myself, I don’t want another father to go on this journey alone. We don’t like to be ignorant.
So what do I do? I do a Google search, which is the absolute worst first step any father can take. And so that was the Genesis, the birth of Autism Dadvocate, a one-stop shop for all dads. Where, hey, if you suspect that your child may have autism, if you just received a diagnosis or you don’t know where to go, start here. Just start here.
And the vision for Autism Dadvocate is as fathers, we’re so focused on our children. What I like to say is before we talk about your daughter, before we talk about your son, let’s talk about you as a father, because you have a very unique experience as a father of an [00:21:00] autistic child. Let’s be fair, there may be nobody on your block, in your neighborhood, in your family, who is going through what you are going through right now. So you can’t open up and relate because you will just… it is like talking two different languages. So that’s what Autism Dadvocate is about. It’s a safe place with other fathers who say, I get it. Yes, I understand. I went through that too, because… And David, maybe this is your experience with men or other dads, we don’t play well in this space of sharing our vulnerability. We don’t. We don’t. And we’ve got to get better at it. And that’s what Dadvocate is all about.
David Hirsch: We’re going to get to that in a minute or so, but before we do and not to focus on the negative, but what have been some of the bigger challenges beyond some of the emotional, lonely, ignorant feelings that you’ve expressed. What are some of the day to day challenges that you’ve experienced over the last decade?
Paul Carroll: I think there’s two ways I look at that with the isolation and loneliness. I think I was really caught off guard at the [00:22:00] stereotyping and the false assumptions people make. And you may get some of the most incredibly insensitive comments said right to your face, even from immediate members of your family or friends, and that could be even further isolating.
I think one of the most hurtful things I heard is a family member very casually referred to my son as Rain Man, and I went nuts! I want to destroy that film, by the way, David. If we can just destroy that film, it would make me the happiest guy in the world. Even just other comments like can it be cured? Oh yeah, they have X-Men super powers. So my son is very gifted in math and science, and it’s dismissed. Oh we know they have that superhuman quality. No, he works really hard and he’s very gifted, but don’t dismiss it. That’s further isolating for fathers of autistic children because you get so many incredibly insensitive comments. And while you understand that these comments are well-intended, man, David, they are deeply hurtful and further isolating.
David Hirsch: Yeah thank you for being [00:23:00] so open and transparent about your reaction to these well-intended sort of thoughts or comments, right? And it speaks to two things. One, the people that are engaged, that are trying to be part of the solution, I think, don’t know, right? Because they don’t have the firsthand experience. So it’s hard to be super critical. There are people that just drop away. They don’t know what to say, they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or they’re uncomfortable, right? You might have had some friends, neighbors, or colleagues who you thought you were closer to, once they find out what your family situation is, they avoid. That’s their way of dealing with challenging situations. It’s just avoidance. So there isn’t like a one right or wrong way. But I guess the way I think about it is that we have a role to help enlighten people. You more from a firsthand standpoint and me more from a working with hundreds and hundreds of families like we do with the Special Fathers Network is just to, let’s just pick one simple thing, [00:24:00] which I thought was simple, which is much more complex than I realized, which is this person-first language that has evolved over the last decade or so in the world of special needs. We’re not just talking about autism, but in the world of special needs, we need to honor the person, right? So it’s Paul, the person with autism, as opposed to saying, The Autistic Man, right? Leading with the word autism. And I got schooled a year or so back by a mutual contact of ours, Eric Endlich who’s done a lot of research on this. He has a son with autism. He was diagnosed later in life with autism himself.
Paul Carroll: And whom I know.
David Hirsch: And I used this person-first language and he said, wait a second. What are you doing? I’m an autistic man. It’s not a disease. It’s not something that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s just part of who I am. And in the research that he’s done or that he is promoting, 80 percent of the adults with autism prefer to be referred to as an autistic person. It’s just part of who they are. They’re [00:25:00] not trying to hide it or mask it or get rid of it. It’s just part of their being.
And again, I think this is part of the enlightenment, right? We need to shed a light on what people’s preferences are and then try to – just like in any other situation, it doesn’t have to be with autism or some type of disability – just understand what somebody’s preference is, right? If your legal name and your nickname are not the same, and you have a preference for Dave or David, just respect what somebody’s preferences are. And I think that means you have to get a little bit closer to somebody or really understand who they are to be able to appreciate or know that. So anyway, there’s a lot of learning.
Paul Carroll: Yeah, there’s so much in there and I what I would impart on our listeners is you can never go wrong from a place of curiosity. You literally cannot go wrong. And so I love what you’re saying about being curious. And I think to anyone, if any of our listeners have someone in there personal circles, a professional network, that is a parent of an autistic child, just lean in with curiosity. Listen and learn. [00:26:00] And boy, you will gain a friend for sure.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. Good advice. What impact has Vaughn’s situation had on your marriage or your extended family for that matter?
Paul Carroll: I think our marriage is absolutely tight and rock solid. There’s that shared in it together, call it the esprit de corps. I think with an extended family, it’s a much more complex dynamic because of those family members who are so ignorant and perhaps are not leaning in with curiosity. They’re leaning in with preconceived stereotypes. So this is a common phenomena in the autism community where there are not really strong family relationships and I can share mine is along those lines, too. Some of the comments that are made, some of the ignorance is very hard to tolerate. So that is another reason why I’ve created Autism Dadvocate because you may need a bit of a surrogate family to get you through some of the challenging times, especially for those parents that may have lower functioning children.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. [00:27:00] But first, this quick message. Please help 21st century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey will receive a Great Dad Coin. Thank you. Now, back to the conversation.
David Hirsch: Let’s talk about Autism Dadvocate. My recollection was you started this in mid-2019 and you’ve alluded a little bit to why, but what’s the full backstory?
Paul Carroll: Yeah, and it’s a great conversation for us to have because I think it extends to all fathers. But I think I shared that May of 2018 was my valley. And when I reflect back I think it was just a deep feeling of isolation. Disconnectedness and loneliness just going through this highly charged experience and not feeling like there was a male figure or any figure that I could reach out to or lean on for support.
[00:28:00] David, I’m a huge fan of a book called Tribe by Sebastian Younger. I get that book for all my friends. Tribe really explores this necessity of being part of a community, part of a group. As men in Western society, sometimes we’re taught to lone wolf situations and that is not the appropriate way to go.
At the time we’re recording, it has not been long since our current U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has stated that he describes isolation and loneliness as an epidemic in this country and the physical impacts are the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is particularly acute with men and it is really acute as men get older, as they get deeper in the family union, as friendships make sunset, as distractions happen. So I’m a huge advocate of tribal support for men.
Again, this is why I’m such a big fan of what you’re doing. You’re making this happen with the Special Fathers Network. But Autism Dadvocate is a safe place where there are stories, there are [00:29:00] podcasts. I will soon be – probably by the time they release this episode, a membership and a mastermind group. I live in Situate, Rhode Island. I don’t know any other dads in my neighborhood or town to go through what I do. So therefore, it may need to be something virtual where we create this tribal support of men that can support one another and say, you know what? You’re not alone. You’re not alone in this journey.
And David, maybe you’ve seen this. This is what scares me. When I hear about things like loneliness and isolation, there are other things that tend to follow. Things like alcoholism and addiction that we’ve talked about, depression, mental health. Because one of the consequences of a feeling of isolation and disconnectedness is a desire to numb or to really have your mental health challenged. And those are true physical health impacts that can occur as a result of this. So that is the vision and mission. It is a tribe of support, other [00:30:00] men who get it.
David Hirsch: I love it. And it’s sorely needed across the board and specifically with the focus that you have, working with fathers who have children with autism or similar diagnoses, right? And I’m wondering when you first started admittedly from a very low experience, personal experience of your own, what was your vision, the original vision for this Autism Dadvocate?
Paul Carroll: It started with just the stories. I felt a need to have a creative outlet, so I just drafted stories of very unique, miraculous experiences with my autistic son. And I started to publish them. I published them on other people’s blogs, on websites, and then I accumulated them on AutismDadvocate.org with the intention of inviting other dads. Hey, you share your stories. There’s enormous power in storytelling. And then from there it escalated to podcast. I have a really strong, big network, and I felt like I want to talk about some of the things that impact our [00:31:00] community and really create a podcast geared specifically laser-focused on those fathers.
And now it’s expanding into a few other things. Like I said, the memberships, the masterminds and even coaching. I’m very blessed to have all these certifications through my professional career. I have the experience of a father of an autistic child, and I will be offering one-on-one coaching as well. Anything I can do to help these men that are quite isolated in their own experience.
The one other additional thing I’ll say, David, and maybe this is within other areas of the Father Network that you support, is a marriage can get very complex with a special needs child. And what I typically find is the roles between husband and wife become very archetypal. Father becomes primary breadwinner, primary caregiver, maybe to neurotypical children. And the mother has an overwhelming responsibility, primary caregiver of neurodiverse child and primary therapy coordinator. And for the marriage, when you have very distinct [00:32:00] roles and a schism like that, it adds further complexity to the situation and it can isolate the husband and wife even more. Really complex dynamics in a situation like this.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. You haven’t talked about your podcast. What motivated you to get on that side of the mic and what has your experience been like so far?
Paul Carroll: I call it go first. Go first! So if I want to invite fathers to share their experiences and feel safe, I have to go first. Be vulnerable. As I’ve shared, May of 2018 was my valley, and I speak very candidly about it on my podcast. And I share it, I’m solo podcast, some of the challenges I’ve had, also some of the miracles. I’m deeply blessed. Through that, I’ve had a string of really interesting guests that are experts in the space that talk about topics like financial considerations you should consider with a neurodiverse child, certain therapies that you’ve maybe heard about, but you don’t know much about, and you don’t know where to start, and [00:33:00] certainly you don’t want to do a Google search like this misguided dad did after the diagnosis. And even just people who are sharing stories, like I share with you, David. Like I had Rodney Peet and Holly Robinson Peet. We look to them as these amazing people in Hollywood. I brought them on my podcast and God, they’re so human in their experience! The relatability when they discuss their son, RJ, is amazing. And so the more I can do that, the more I realize, our fathers realize, oh, these are consistent themes. It’s not just me. It’s every father. It’s every family.
Welcome to the Autism Dadvocate Podcast, hosted by founder and creator, Paul Carroll. The Autism Dadvocate Podcast is a forum specifically to explore the topics that matter most to you, the amazing dads of autistic children. Now here is today’s episode.
My name is Paul Carroll. I’m the founder and creator of Autism Dadvocate, and more importantly, I am the father of a miraculous 13-year old boy born on the spectrum who finds new ways to bring me [00:34:00] joy every day. So my intention is to describe what Autism Dadvocate is, why I got…
[fade out of audio excerpt]
David Hirsch: I’ve had a chance to listen to some of your podcasts and you’ve done things a couple of different ways, right? You’ve done monologues, just yourself sharing some very meaningful insights. And then you’ve also done some amazing interviews as well. And I think that there’s so many different directions you could go, right? You could do not just a podcast every week or other week, but you could probably do a podcast a day if you had the time. And I really admire the work and the dedication that you bring to the organization that you’ve created. And I’m hoping that you’ll have continued success.
I’m thinking about advice now, and not to say that you haven’t made some suggestions already, but I’m wondering what advice comes to mind, specifically for dads raising a child with special needs, maybe even beyond autism?
Paul Carroll: A few things. Number one, don’t lone wolf it. You will not be an effective father if you think you can. [00:35:00] And there’s a lot of societal pressure, correct? That is just the definition of the self-made man, the American, the lone cowboy going into the wilderness. I think we idealize in the United States this sort of lone wolf go at it alone and I don’t need anybody And nothing could be further from the truth. We like to say Jesus had 12 apostles. So number one, seek community however it can be. And if you’re the parent of a neurodiverse child, Autism Dadvocate is just a great first step. It’s a great first step to begin. So number one, don’t lone wolf it.
Number two, understand that you are going through a very unique experience. I shareD with you my experience was quite isolating because I’m looking around thinking, who is my tribe? Who can I relate to? And I think the challenge is you can even look at your own immediate family, friends, and neighborhoods and not see that sort of sense of identification. So find your tribe.
And thirdly, I call it go first. I think we as men are not courageous in this arena at all. We don’t [00:36:00] like to reach out. We don’t like to make the connection. We don’t like to be vulnerable. We don’t like to ask for help and nothing could be worse. And here’s the irony, David, and maybe you see this within your network is, how many times have you had a father perhaps reach out to you or to the network, ask for help and not receive it? We’d love to give help! We’d love to give support! We’d love to give guidance! We are honored when other fathers reach out to us! So why there’s reluctance I don’t know because typically you’re gonna be embraced with open arms.
David Hirsch: I think the real challenge is getting to the youngest dads.
Paul Carroll: Yeah.
David Hirsch: In a perfect world, it would be at or shortly after the time of diagnosis. Sometimes they’re diagnosed in vitro, sometimes they’re diagnosed at birth. Many situations are not diagnosed for a year or years down the road, like you were explaining your own. And there’s a certain way of dealing with adversity, right? There’s the denial that usually takes place, hopefully not more than hours, days, or weeks. But admittedly [00:37:00] sometimes it’s a lot longer than that. And then once you come to grips with the reality of the situation, there’s a, like you were saying, there’s a loss of who do I turn to? Who do I know? Who can I trust? I think that getting plugged in sooner than later, erring on the side of engaging, like you were saying, go first. If we can somehow encourage the next generation of dads to embrace the strengths that we have, and then embrace some of the situations like you’ve described. Don’t try to be the lone wolf. Understand that it’s unique. But it’s unique if you want to make it unique, right? If you want to stay isolated, then it’s more unique. But if you are reaching out and you’re plugging in to a tribe or a group, then you realize that you’re not alone, right? There are other people that have been there and done that, and we all benefit by being in association with people that have a little bit more experience than our own. So it allows you to see down the road or around the corner.
And I just admire you for not just [00:38:00] being a committed husband and a committed father like you’ve described but somehow you have the bandwidth to want to make a difference in other people’s lives. And sometimes when the sun is shining and things are going well at home and at work, you feel like your bucket is full and you can do anything. And then there’s times that it’s challenging at home for different reasons. It’s challenging at work for different reasons. And you question yourself. I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to be putting myself out there as not an expert, but extending yourself, right? Because then you’re more vulnerable as well. And I think that there’s a give and take. So I’m just hoping that from your lips to God’s ears, I’m hoping that your work will continue to flourish.
Paul Carroll: Yeah. And I agree, David, I’m actually really inspired by younger dads. I think there’s a deeper sense of the criticality of the role of fatherhood. Much more embracing of diversity and neurodiversity. And the recent CDC guidance suggests [00:39:00] 1 in 36 children in the United States is born on spectrum. As we start to wind down today’s episode, my invitation to any fathers is, the last thing I’ll say on this topic is, we’ve also gotta, we do have a little bit of work to do in reducing stigma.
Here’s what I mean by it, David. Quick story. So the nature of the work I do in talent development, I am occasionally at large conferences. I am mic’d up on stage, thousand people, lights in the eyes, cameras. I share my experiences. It’s just part of who I am. I cannot tell you how often during a break, lunch, cocktail hour, people pulled me aside. People I know, people I’ve worked with for years who say, I love what you said, Paul, and [whispering] I’m the parent of an autistic child. And I cannot tell you the frustration. Like, why is this a secret? Why are you whispering? I feel like there’s stigma there. This is just part of life, especially with 136. So my ask of all of our listeners today is let’s not whisper this, let’s put [00:40:00] this out into the arena. There should be no stigma associated with this anymore in 2023.
David Hirsch: I love it. Thanks for making the point. So why is it you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Paul Carroll: Oh my God, such an easy question. It’s called paying it forward. I shared with you, I did not have the benefit of that. So I will be that person for someone else. And I will take that seat with honor and humility to mentor another father. I think it’s a beautiful thing to be mentored. And I think it’s a beautiful thing to serve as a mentor.
David Hirsch: Well-stated. We’re thrilled to have you. Thank you so much for being part of the network. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Paul Carroll: No, I’m delighted to be a part of this conversation. I love the awareness you bring, the work that you do, and essentially what you’re doing and what I’m doing, it’s the same thing, correct David? It’s tribe. It’s all about tribe. It’s all about community. It’s all about fathers helping other fathers. And that is a very noble mission.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. So let’s give a [00:41:00] special shout out to Eric Jorgensen of True North Disability Planning in Frederick, Maryland for helping connect us.
Paul Carroll: Thank you, Eric.
David Hirsch: If someone wants to learn more about your work or to contact you, what’s the best way to do that?
Paul Carroll: Certainly, they can go to the website or they can check out the Autism Dadvocate Podcast, which is on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music. The website is AutismDadvocate.org and I will be updating and essentially creating a second website called AutismPodvocate.com that will have the membership and mastermind community.
David Hirsch: Podvocate. Is that what you said?
Paul Carroll: Podvocate! Because I’ve been told a lot of my audience is moms, and I do not want to be exclusive. Although my experience as a dad, I want to expand my reach. Autism Podvocate.
David Hirsch: Okay, that’s a new one.
Paul Carroll: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Maybe you should trademark that. We’ll be sure to include all those links in the show notes so it’ll make it as easy as possible for somebody to reach out to you. Paul, thank you for taking the time and many insights. As a reminder, Paul is just one of the dads who is part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special [00:42:00] needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501c3 not for profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please make a tax-deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support. Paul, thanks again.
Paul Carroll: Thank you again.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And [00:43:00] if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to Facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad.” Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch.
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