What Art and Fatherhood have Taught me about Autism

Dennis Procopio

By Dennis Procopio

“Dennis, please just get in the f***ing car.”

This was my mother, pleading with her 9-year-old son to sit in a friend’s car which had crushed velvet seats. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. It felt…. unbearable.

As she herself was diagnosed with a laundry list of clinical diagnoses including borderline personality disorder (BPD) – which I realize now was most likely misdiagnosed autism – she was usually fairly sensitive to my quirks and idiosyncrasies. In this moment, however, she was mortified that my failure to comply with social expectations was making her stand out, and so she directed her intense anxiety at me. “Den, JUST sit in the car! PLEASE!” And the more I whined that I couldn’t, the more visibly unhinged she became. It was very much a powder keg situation. In the end, her friend suggested I sit on a towel, which was a great idea that deescalated our velvet seat crisis.

My mother was a creative person. An idea person. She was always writing or sketching up ideas for things she could make: clothing, toys, furniture…. she was very much a project person. I realize in hindsight that these projects were part of her overall coping strategy; she hyperfixated on creative endeavors as a way of self-regulating.

Myself a child of the 70’s and 80’s, this naturally trickled down to me. There was no internet (and also, we were dirt poor) so I learned from an early age to self-entertain with simple tools….. paper, pens, markers, string, rubber bands, sticks, glue, etc. I spent a significant amount of my youth in creative mode, developing both a rudimentary appreciation for the fundamental laws of physical things as well as a deeper appreciation for meditation; after all, spend enough time quietly doing anything and you will inevitably discover the power of meditation.

My childhood was unfortunately somewhat traumatic. There was physical abuse from family members, sexual abuse from predators outside the family, poverty, situational instability, substance abuse, etc. The last time I counted, the number of schools I’ve attended – including two colleges – was 24. That’s a lot, obviously.

Drawing became my thing. It was something I did all the time, everywhere, anywhere. I either had a sketchbook or managed to find paper and pen. I lived in my drawings the way kids these days live in their phones. In class, I drew. If a teacher asked me to take notes rather than draw, I would recite everything I had just heard said for the past minute verbatim, whereupon – with a look of awe – they would encourage me to go back to drawing. I earned my artistic license early on. It was my normality waiver. I got a pass to do things my way, because I was different.

I always assumed this difference was because (a) I was a trauma survivor; and (b) I was a creative. It never occurred to me that I might be autistic (though the “joke” was often made that I was autistic, which is how the word “artistic” sounds when spoken with a heavy New Yawk accent).

I graduated high school in New York at the age of 17. I lived illegally in a trailer on the side of my bus driver’s house; I lived as an emancipated minor, with no support from either of my parents or any of my extended family. I wasn’t a runaway. I would’ve loved the support from anyone willing to offer it. It just didn’t happen – and life goes on – so I grinded at several different jobs, did my school work, and graduated top of my class. Further, I was awarded a full scholarship to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which is quite prestigious, and signified a major pivot-point in my life. I felt myself moving in the direction of my purpose, surrounded by people who were like me in some intangible way.

Fast-forward: I would attend several colleges as an art student, and from there go on a wild roller coaster ride trying to learn how to live as a young adult while making tons of social mistakes that made my daily existence nearly unmanageable. When my crazy ride finally slowed down, and my turbulence leveled out enough to find myself living a relatively stable life, it was in New England where I took a job as an art instructor. I attribute much of my personal success to this experience.

Teaching art was familiar for me, because I lived in school(s), and teachers had been my real parents for all intents and purposes. The classes I taught ranged from teen open-studio classes to adult courses in drawing and painting. I quickly learned that teaching art was less about imparting technical knowledge (I mean, anyone can learn to render), and more about helping students overcome self-defeating scripts. They were afraid to be creative. They were afraid to be spontaneous, or – God forbid – improvisational. They lacked creative confidence, and had repressed their creative voices. I discovered that my job was to encourage them. To assure them that their way of seeing, and expressing, was valid.

Fast-forward again to 2022. I am the father of an autistic 12-year-old, who also has achondroplasia dwarfism.

In the 12 years that Bennett has been in this world, I have learned a lot about how autism manifests for him. His mom and I have learned a lot about the challenges parents face advocating for kids with disabilities… and she works in education law in our district; so if we’re hitting walls, I can’t imagine what other parents are going through. In fact, our experiences have been so frustrating that in desperation I joined an online support group hosted by adult autistics specifically to field questions for neurotypical parents of autistic children.

And guess what happens next in my story?

At 51 years of age – meaning earlier this year – this father learned through a very arduous process that he is in fact autistic.

And I mean VERY autistic, though in no way comparable to the stereotypical and frankly myopic portrayal of autism Hollywood has offered us, Rainman most memorably. The fascinating part of this revelation has been the full system audit I’ve done, reframing my entire life, and replacing those old labels with new ones. Where I once was merely “a creative”, “a trauma survivor”, and in less kind descriptions “imbalanced” or even simply “crazy”, I now understand that I am neurodivergent, and have spent the better part of my life masking as a way of fitting in. The AHA!-Moment I’ve experienced has been unbelievable, and really helps me to not only understand my son, but also my clients in the professional space I operate in.

Back when I was teaching art, I realized I have a passion for mentorship. Now I live in San Diego, CA and operate a successful business – Man-UP! Life Coaching – mentoring men who secretly struggle with adulting, as well as using their creative voices in a way that allows them to have an optimal life experience. In many ways these guys are masking; and like any of us who mask for fear of judgment or social ostracization, they’re living lives which are unbearable and seem unsustainable. Many of my clients are guys who are criticized for being out of touch with their feelings, or seeming to lack empathy for others. Consider this excerpt from a Wikipedia entry on Alexithymia (a common co-condition for some of us on the spectrum):

“Difficulty with recognizing and talking about their emotions appears at subclinical levels in men who conform to cultural notions of masculinity (such as thinking that sadness is a feminine emotion). This is called normative male alexithymia by some researchers.”

So if I had to crunch this whole article into a value-add for the reader – a TLDR of sorts – I guess the major takeaways would be as follows:

I was a kid who didn’t realize he was autistic, raised by a mom who also didn’t realize she was autistic (herself raised by a mom whom I have since deduced was autistic).

Somehow, I found my way into an art college, despite incredible situational setbacks.

Art school led to art instruction, where I taught people not only to draw, but to be their authentic selves.

I am now the father of an autistic child, whom I more easily parent due to the recent discovery that I am in fact autustic (rendering our relationship an “each-one-teach-one” dynamic).

And finally, as a successful Life Coach for Men, the “secret sauce” to teaching guys how to “MAN-UP!” is less about pushing a macho agenda, and more about daring to be different, even if that vulnerability is terrifying.

In his iconic book Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins writes: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. As a 51-year-old autistic artist dad coaching men for a living, and residing in paradise here in Southern California, I couldn’t agree more.

Dennis Procopio

Dennis Procopio is Founder and head coach at Man-UP! Life Coaching (MULC). Established nearly a decade ago, MULC was Dennis’s answer to the question we all face as men: “What is my WHY?” Using his experiences both as an educator and a trauma survivor, Dennis began a coaching practice for men, using what he calls the “Bro Coach® Approach”. His coaching methodology incorporates elements of traditional therapy, instructive coaching, and an otherwise noticeably missing factor — Brotherly Love — to help men achieve optimal wellness and self-betterment goals in all facets of their lives.

Dennis lives in San Diego, CA where he enjoys being the father of his 12-year-old autistic, achondroplastic son – Bennett – who helps mom and dad learn more about autism everyday. These are invaluable lessons, as mom works in education law and dad has recently discovered his own autism diagnosis at the age of 51.

11 replies on “What Art and Fatherhood have Taught me about Autism”
  1. That crushed velvet must have been such a sensory offence especially to your thermoceptors and your tactile world.

    [Of course lots of people LOVE crushed velvet and/or are fairly indifferent to it].

    When you talked about your mother and the way she was hyperfocusing on projects…

    That unknown law of physical things – sitting quietly for long enough brings the power of meditation.

    Thank you for sharing your life with Bennett and your coaching work.

    And the way you question and challenge these hegemonic ideas of masculinity.

    I can imagine all too well what parents are going through [that are not the Procopios].

    That normative male alexthymia phenomenon.

    1. Hi Adelaide. Thanks for reading, and for your responses. Writing as a discipline brings its own rewards, but nothing beats sharing and receiving positive validation. And yeah…. no velvet for this guy. Man DOWN!

      1. Positive validation is just not given enough – and not specifically enough.

        It’s been good to talk with you Dennis.

        And to see how MAN DOWN works in practice.

        Writing AS A DISCIPLINE.
        [there is another gentleman called Dennis who I had “met” on the NaNoWriMo circuit about ten years ago now. He wrote this experimental text].

        Glad I was able to touch base on the velvet and your feeling about it.

        Have to admit I was drawn in by the first sentence – your mother’s explosion.

        [it might so easily have been an *im*plosion].

  2. says: Joe Metro

    Dennis (and Team),
    Thank you for the courage and compassion to share your life’s experiences to build up others. Brother, I’m grateful for your core program’s effect on me!

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