Father-of-two Ellis Burke, 63, gently calls his son over to the table as he carefully opens an iPad. Jeremy, 25, who is autistic, takes a seat. Pictures of Dr. Seuss characters fill the screen.
“Jeremy, would you like to help me read the book?” Burke asks.
“Yes,” Jeremy responds.
Burke’s other son Joel, 28, is at work. He is married with two kids of his own.
Parents with multiple children often struggle to balance their kids’ individual needs. When one of those children has ‘special needs’, it can be more challenging.
Burke’s sons are on different ends of the achievement range, but that does not stop him from having the same level of commitment in seeing that both his sons achieve at the highest level. For this Father’s Day, Burke shares five of the lessons he has learned from his two sons over the years.
“I had to adjust. Jeremy is not a high flyer,” Burke said. “He has special challenges and although I want him to become the best that he can be, I cannot put him in the same light as Joel. Jeremy, as a special needs kid, has challenges, and we have to accept that. He’s on the autism spectrum and for him I have to go slowly, repeat things to make sure he understands.”
Burke said he is still trying to figure out when he says to Jeremy ‘to do this or that’, what actually goes on in his mind.
He understands that he has to really make a lot of effort when he speaks to Jeremy and not get anxious or angry. This, Burke said, has help him become more caring and understanding of others’ needs.
“I know parents can get angry with their special needs children, but sometimes [the children] do not really understand,” he said.
When he talks to his son, Burke said, Jeremy may hear the words, but sometimes does not have a clue what the words mean. If he gets angry with him, Jeremy does not understand why.
He said of his sons, “They are both special, but they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. … The gifted one tends to be very independent and the other very dependent.”
For Jeremy, organisation is key. Everything has to be in place, which Burke said is part of his son’s unique make-up.
“He reminds me that I must not leave my slippers at the door and he knows what slippers I wear at different times,” he said.
“He does help us to stay organised,” Burke said. Papers must be placed in the bin and books must be put away … Joel, on the other hand, did not have that same level of organisation. He was more focussed on reading books and sourcing material online. “I believe we spent more time organising Joel’s space than Jeremy’s,” Burke said.
In the early stages of Jeremy’s life, up until age 3, Jeremy’s development was pretty much on target, but later on, the Burkes realised he was not talking as he should. It was very difficult for them as parents, Burke said.
“We prayed about his condition and waited on the Lord to change him,” he said. “We actually thought he would change, and got his uniform for Red Bay School and turned up with him the September morning of registration. We were believing for a miracle he would change.”
However, they soon realised he could not attend a classroom of 30-40 children, so they took him over to the Lighthouse school. Jeremy settled in nicely and graduated from the school.
“Over the years, we really have learned to be patient with his development,” said Burke, “once we realised he was not progressing like Joel. Joel had a clear set mind as to what he wanted to do, right from the get-go. He married and purchased his first apartment at age 20.”
There is nothing Burke said he would not do for his two sons. He wants the best for them and wants to be there for them, point them in the right direction, listen and not be judgemental.
“I want to know they are getting the best in everything, it’s really to say we are here for you … the love we have for them is an unconditional love, and our love is never unkind or abusive,” Burke said.
The two boys, he said, get on fairly well. In his teenage years, Joel was very concerned about his brother’s development. He prayed for him to be normal and wanted a brother he could communicate with better, Burke said. As time went by, he realised Jeremy was not going to be that brother, but loved him nonetheless.
The family continues with an ongoing programme for Jeremy to work on his educational and physical development, which includes walking in the mornings, playing basketball in the evenings, solving puzzles and working on iPad education.
Joel is encouraged to take good care of his family, and any time he needs his family’s support, the door is always open.
“Father’s Day is not just about gift giving,” Burke said. When his sons were young, they sat down and enjoyed a family meal together, a tradition that they continue today as adults.
“Fathers, love your children, respect them, realise that they are unique, because no two children are identical. We are uniquely assigned by our eternal Father,” Burke said.
“Each person is unique, just like our palms, everyone has a different fingerprint, and so we most appreciate the uniqueness of each individual and care for them in that way,” he added.