Since Bill Davis’ son, Chris, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, the Pennsylvania dad has learned to modify his expectations, often making changes where needed in order to help his son succeed.
Davis and his son are among the subjects of author Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree.” A promotional video for the book, filmed in 2012, went viral recently after being shared on Facebook by Upworthy. To date, the video has received more than 20 million views; with comments that commend Davis for the strong love he has for his child continuing to pour in.
Today, Chris is 22, a high school graduate, and is enrolled in classes at a local college, where he studies music, computers and art with the help of two aids who follow him through his day.
But Davis says the journey to get Chris to where he is today has been a long fight, filled with many challenges.
“Looking back, I can remember I noticed things and thought, ‘Wow, he’s kind of an odd kid. He really keeps to himself,’” said Davis. “But I now know that, even from an early age, he exhibited signs of autism.”
Davis and his wife, Jae, who has since died, first started seeking answers about their son’s condition when he was a toddler. After learning the extent of his diagnosis, the couple made it their mission to get Chris the therapy and education he needed, starting an in-home schooling program during his elementary school years with the help of Rutgers University and a team of local college interns.
Despite the struggles of losing his mother to cancer, Chris excelled in the schooling environment that Davis maintained for him, and eventually entered a public middle school, then continued to high school. Chris graduated from high school two years ago, and after expressing his desire to continue to attend school, began his college career.
“He was almost animalistic in the beginning. It was 24 hours a day of him hurting himself, biting me, refusing to wear clothes or go outside or speak. There could be no hugging, no noise, no touching, no outside stimulus,” Davis told TODAY Parents.
“Today, he eats his own food, he carries out the garbage, he travels to and from college, he says hello to everybody, he listens to music and paints, he navigates through life,” Davis continued. “Can he do these things alone? No. But, he’s come so far and now, we have this wonderful guy who’s our best friend.”
Davis remarried when Chris was in middle school, and says his current wife, Kate, has been an amazing stepmother to his son. Both Davis and his wife say they are shocked that the interview video has resurfaced and received such an overwhelming response.
“It’s flattering. It’s insane. But, we’re not angelic,” said Davis. “Certainly, I would have loved to have had a few more nights out or a couple more beers, but I wasn’t going to throw my son away or put him in an institution as I was told to do. He was so hurt from this disorder and in so much pain…and I knew he deserved a chance. That’s all I did is give him one.”
Andrew Solomon says from the time he met Davis and his late wife, he was touched by the amount of love that surrounded Chris.
“They had been told not to have any hopes for their kid, and they’d refused to accept that sentence. They were determined to help him live the best life he could and grow as much as possible — and it worked,” said Solomon. “In my bedroom at home, I have a painting that Chris made for me, and every time I look at it, I think how doctors said he would never amount to anything. The power of love was central, but this was intelligent love — to love Chris for all he is and to help him become all he can be.”
Solomon says the relationship between Chris and his parents, as well as all of the families he encountered over the years of research he did for the book, played a large role in his decision to become a parent himself.
“Working on the book convinced me that it was possible to love children whom the world saw as undesirable, and that it was possible to define family in ways that made internal sense,” said Solomon. “I thought that if all the parents I’d met had been able to find joy and give joy to their children, I’d be able to do the same. And that has turned out to be true — (our children) are the lights of our lives, and I feel that they have made me courageous. And people like Bill — they have inspired me to be the best parent I can be.”
Davis is an author himself, having written several books about his family's journey with autism. The father of three hopes the viral attention he has received will open additional doors to help other families who are navigating an autism diagnosis. He and Kate have also started a GoFundMe site to raise money for expenses related to Chris’ care.
“I think that I was in situations where I wanted to give up — and maybe I did give up here and there — but somehow, I was always saved,” said Davis. “You just have to take a lot of baby steps, and accept that you may never have a functioning child. It’s about modifying your expectations, not giving up, and saying you’ll do what needs to be done for your kid because they deserve it. I just keep going, and I fall in love with Chris again and again every day.”
Andrew Solomon’s book, “Far From the Tree,” can be purchased on Amazon. Additional videos featuring the stories of other families from the book can be found on the author’s website.