A political journalist’s new book “Love That Boy” shares how his autistic son changed his perspective on parenthood and life.
A blue-and-orange blanket with the Tigers “D” hung on one wall of Tyler Fournier’s nursery. Autographed Red Wings jerseys draped the others. Even before he was born, his dad nicknamed him Tiger and Ty — after Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, of course.
After having two daughters, Ron Fournier couldn’t wait to bond with his son over sports — the same way he bonded with his dad. So he enrolled his kid in every sport you can imagine. But Tyler wasn’t interested, or any good, at any of them. He wandered off the soccer field to pick dandelions. He couldn’t catch the balls on his Little League team. He lagged behind on the basketball court. He was awful at flag football and hockey, too. The bench was his “happy place.” More upsetting for his father, Tyler grew to hate sports.
“The expectations that I had for him, like that he would be into sports, was out of love. I thought that was the only way I could really bond with him,” Ron reasons. “I wanted to have a relationship with him. The fact is, those expectations were hurting our relationship.”
What Ron didn’t know all those times he coaxed Tyler outside to play catch was his son had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. After his diagnosis, Ron, a political writer for the National Journal, decided to document his journey to love and accept his son in “Love That Boy” (Harmony Books), a new book released Tuesday. Ron says the book is not just for parents with special needs children.
“This is for all parents, because all of us come into parenthood with a set of expectations about our children that shape and sometimes mishape our kids,” he says.
TV show leads to diagnosis
It was only when Ron’s wife, Lori Fournier, started watching the former NBC drama “Parenthood” that they realized there may be something behind Tyler’s failed hand-eye coordination; their precocious little boy may be more than “quirky.”
From the first episode, Lori recognized her then-12-year-old son in the character Max Braverman, who had Asperger’s. Max was hyper focused on bugs. Tyler was hyper focused on animals. He’d read anything and everything about them online and in magazines.
“Tyler would just look at them over and over and over again, and he would catalogue all these facts about animals, and then give them back to us,” Lori says. “At the time, we thought, ‘Oh, he’s such a bright kid, and he really loves animals.’ ” She pauses. “Then I made the link when I was watching the television show.”
For Ron, who observed presidents for a living as one of the nation’s top political reporters, it’s tough to swallow that he missed all the signs when observing his son: high-level vocabulary, rapid speech, picky eater, avoids eye contact, misreads social cues, keeps to himself.
Autism is hard to spot. About 1 in 68 American children are on the spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 10-fold increase over the past 40 years, which the advocacy organization Autism Speaks says is due to improved diagnoses and awareness.
“The line between somebody who’s a little bit quirky and a little bit antisocial, and being high-functioning autism is imprecise, and you can’t take a blood test for autism,” Ron says. “Another part of it is I just didn’t want to admit that maybe he is different. As a parent, you want your kid to be brilliant and successful and handsome or beautiful and popular. The last thing you want your kid to be is, as I say in the book, abnormal.”
Sitting in a Detroit News conference room during a visit in Detroit last week to see his grandson and daughter Holly, a reporter at The News, Fournier is dressed in a suit emblazoned with a blue Autism Speaks puzzle piece button, a reminder of April’s Autism Awareness Month. His black tie lists the old Detroit bus route in white font:
4 Belle Isle
34 Gratiot — The stop his grandfathers took to get to work at the Jefferson plant.
Ron, 52, grew up playing catch with his dad on Coram Street, on the same middle-class block his parents were raised in in Detroit. He recalls a fond memory of his dad, a Detroit Police officer, taking him and his brothers to Olympia Stadium, where the locker room attendant watched them while his dad (also named Ron) directed traffic. Young Ron met all the Detroit Red Wings players that way.
His face gives away his joy of sharing that memory. When he begins to talk about Tyler and the book, guilt washes over him as he recalls a moment six months after Tyler’s diagnosis.
The two are standing in line to meet the Obamas at the 2010 White House media holiday party. Tyler is practicing his handshake and the line, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President.” Ron is worrying about what embarrassing thing Tyler might do or say. Before stepping up to pose for pictures, Tyler looks up and says, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.”
“Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mrs. Obama gently brush Tyler’s bangs from his eyes and lean in for a hug,” Ron writes in “Love That Boy.”
“I worry for a moment that Tyler will pull away because he’s uncomfortable with being touched, especially by strangers. But he embraces the First Lady, wishes her a merry Christmas, and then shuffles to his left to look her husband squarely in the eye and shake his hand. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President.’
My stomach clenches as I realize the problem here isn’t my son. It’s not even autism. It’s me.”
Bonding with son
The White House party was the first stop on the “guilt trips,” as Ron calls them, that Lori devised for her husband and son.
“When we got his diagnosis, I knew he was going to have trouble making friends and he was going to be so lonely, and then also he had these issues that he really needed to get out into the world to practice to learn how to deal with the world outside himself,” Lori says in a phone interview from their home in Arlington, Virginia.
At this point, Tyler was fixated on history, so Lori mapped a route of the presidential homes and libraries of John and John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Gerald Ford. Lori told her husband to use his press connections to set up visits with Bill Clinton and George Bush. It seemed like a long shot, but both former presidents agreed to chat with Tyler.
“Instead of me putting my career first” — like he had when he moved the family in 1985 to Arkansas so he could cover then-Gov. Bill Clinton, and then again in 1993 to Washington so he could cover the White House — “she was making me put my family first,” Ron says.
The trips eventually evolved into a magazine article Ron wrote for the National Journal in 2012, which then evolved into the book. The title comes from the three words Bush uttered to Ron after meeting 5-year-old Tyler in the Oval Office.
“When Bush said that to me, I thought, ‘Well, that’s nice, love that boy despite the fact that he’s different. Love him despite his idiosyncracies,” Ron says.
It took his adventures with Tyler to understand what the president’s order to “love that boy” really meant: “Love him because of his idiosyncracies.”
Even if no one buys the book, which Tyler read and had the power to veto up until publication day, Ron says it doesn’t matter. The eight road trips did what sports failed to accomplish: The two spent more time together than they ever had. “(The project) really helped me get a handle on this issue of expectations and how I was letting my expectations for him strangle him.”
The next chapter starts where this story begins.
After Tyler graduates from high school in June, the Fourniers plan to return to the state they call home.
“We’ve been desperately homesick since we left in ’85,” Ron says. His contract with the National Journal ends later this year, and he’s figuring out what he’ll do to “feed the empty nest.”
“It means a lot that we’re coming back to Detroit as this book is coming out,” Ron says. “It’s part of the story. Part of how we know we can help Tyler is by getting him back here. There’s so many people here who love that boy.”
While there are relatives sprinkled throughout the state, perhaps no one’s more thrilled than Ron’s oldest daughter, Holly Flickinger, who lives with her husband and nearly 2-year-old son in Midtown.
Nine years older than her brother, Flickinger, 27, has vivid memories of his “Tylerisms.” Her favorite is when Tyler came along for a shopping trip. He was hungry and collapsed on the store floor, shouting, “Mom, my blood sugar is dangerously low!”
“This kid’s like 5. And who says that when they’re 5? Tyler does,” she says.
There’s a misconception that people with Asperger’s and autism lack empathy, she adds.
“That’s just not true, especially when it comes to Tyler. They maybe don’t show it in the way that you or I would recognize it, but Tyler is the most loving, empathetic boy that you could meet. .... He needed to be taught how to show his empathy and how to show his love, but it was there the whole time.”
“When he tells you that he loves you, you know it’s not just to make you feel good,” says Tyler’s sister, Gabrielle Fournier, a Michigan State law school student who’s six years older than Tyler. Gabrielle has a funny side, and the two have a shared interest in comedy. Tyler even recently took improv classes.
“I think it’s a way for him to connect with people in a safe way. He doesn’t have to talk to them one-on-one, but he can still connect with them and make them laugh — that’s probably what he likes about me.”
As for Tyler, now 18, the goal is to enroll in a community college and continue his social skills training.
Flickinger says she hopes Tyler reaches a point where he can live independently and hold down a job. When the book went to print, he wanted to be a comedian. The other day, he told her he wants to be a history teacher.
“Going along with what my dad said (in the book), you need to want what they want. Tyler wants to be a history teacher, so I want him to be a history teacher,” she says.
There’s a fine line between “pushing and guiding” your children, Ron says. They may not be into sports, or they may seek a different career path than what you had in mind, but his takeaway for parents is clear:
“Love your kids for who they are,” he says. “Don’t love them despite what they didn’t become.”
When it comes to Tyler, honesty drips from Ron’s mouth.
“He’s not the son that I idealized, but he’s my ideal son … I love him for exactly what he is and who he is.”