When You Suspect a Parent May Be on the Autism Spectrum

Man stands on rock cliff looking out to see while child sits behind himThere is a great deal of literature and support available for parents of children with the traits or diagnosis of autism spectrum (ASD). I write often about relationships in which this describes one partner, and there are books available in support of such couples. But what if you suspect one of your parents may be on the spectrum? There are meager resources available which specifically address such concerns.

Perhaps you have children of your own now and one of them seems autistic, prompting you to look at your family of origin with new perspective. It’s also possible you discovered that you are autistic yourself. Or you have read enough about autism that it suddenly dawned on you that ASD might explain the challenges you have always had with a parent—challenges that have, up until now, baffled you. For the sake of this article, let’s say it is your father you are concerned about.

It can be sobering to think these thoughts after all these years. It can be frightening. You may wonder whether you even have the right to consider such a thing with regard to your own father, who otherwise seems to have a successful life and a mature career. In fact, this is one of the things that has never squared with you: your father has always seemed to be a different person to you than to the rest of the world. All these years, you thought the root of the problem resided within you. Now you are beginning to wonder.

You may wonder why what feels like relentless critical judgment always seems more characteristic of your father than confidence-building positive acknowledgment (“If you can get an A in every other subject, why do you consistently get a B in mathematics?”).

You may wonder why your father never seems to get jokes (yours or anyone else’s), figures of speech (he takes things literally), or social conventions (“Valentine’s Day is merely an excuse for card companies to make money”).

You may wonder why he can send you checks but seldom seems to ask about or understand the emotional state you may be in at any given time.

You may wonder why your mother seldom has her own interests or friends anymore, but rather seems to live in support of your father’s plans and interests.

You may wonder why your father never hugs you and doesn’t seem to like it when you hug him.

You may wonder whether your father is depressed, because he has always been so quick to anger and so slow to recover from it.

You may feel angry about all the fruitless years you have spent trying to please your father. And you may feel guilty for feeling angry.

You may wonder why a father would set out to hurt his child over and over again without seeming to understand that he does it.

The main thing to remember is that your father came of age well before the notion of high-functioning autism (until recently called Asperger’s syndrome) was understood even within the ranks of mental health professionals. Until just recently, autism was imagined in its most dysfunctional forms, as characterized by children who seemed beyond the reach of language and behavioral communication. Milder forms of autism were generally not considered.

Since ASD is invisible, those who are now older adults and had the social manifestations of mild autism as children were likely described as being “quirky,” as being someone who “hears a different drum,” or who “likes to keep to themselves.” They may have had few friends, a chemistry lab in their bedroom, and a preference for the company of adults, which was facilitated by advanced language skills.

When we do ASD evaluations as psychotherapists, we generally meet with the individual for several sessions to gather as much information as we can. Since there is no specific test for ASD, the process is narrative. Meetings with the spouse or children are of great importance in this process, because by definition people with ASD are not able to provide insight into what it is like to love them and to live with them.

The intense special interests of children with ASD were viewed most often as precocious (“Brian knows everything there is to know about the solar system”), perhaps interesting (“if you want to know anything about dinosaurs, Amber is the one to ask”), but also sometimes as weird (“Thomas knows everything there is to know about industrial exhaust systems”). The judgment depended on how mainstream the child’s special interest appeared to be.

For the fortunate, their special interests aligned with academic pursuits that led to successful professional careers (law, medicine, university professorships, music, engineering). Such individuals applied their extraordinary powers of concentration to their fields and may have had stellar success as a result. For their children and wives, this can be a source of great confusion, because this is where the split becomes most obvious to them: the doctor, the attorney, the engineer can be prominent and well-respected in the world outside the home, but when the doors are closed and the family is home alone, another person emerges. This is the person who prefers to eat in silence, who returns to the study each evening after supper only to emerge well past everyone else’s bedtimes, and who then leaves the house earlier than everyone else the next morning. This is the person who has never attended a ballet performance, who has never changed a diaper, and who may sometimes read bedtime stories in stylized and stilted English to the children.

I can tell you some things about the points I raised earlier that might help you to make sense of your father’s behavior from his perspective. This list is not exhaustive, but it can be a start.

  • Regarding the critical judgment you always felt: If your father has ASD, one of the most important guiding principles in his life is likely to be his sense of justice and fairness. Therefore, for him to notice that you are clearly capable of getting all As on your report cards except for the errant Bs in math most likely means he is driven to call your attention to the problem so you can remedy it. To him, it seems perfectly clear: now that you see the error in your grading pattern, you will be able to fix it and get an A in every class. It is less likely to occur to him that you may be struggling with an ineffective instructor in math, or that you just don’t like the subject and are doing your best. It is particularly unlikely he would commend you on all the As you did receive; the grades are their own rewards, and there is little he is going to believe would be necessary to add to that. He will assume you know this already, because he will assume you think the same way he thinks.
  • If your dad doesn’t get jokes, tends to take things literally, and balks at social conventions such as celebrating birthdays and holidays, it is likely due to the fact individuals with ASD process the world cognitively and not intuitively (the way of the neurotypical). This means that much of what is communicated by body language, tone of voice, gesture, facial expression, and posture is likely to go unnoticed; the meaning of the words will be heard without mitigation. Jokes fall flat. And the social conventions, those unstated but generally understood reasons for celebrating birthdays and holidays, will make no sense because they do not seem practical.
  • Sending you checks may be your father’s primary means of showing he cares for you. He may not ask how you are feeling, and he may not respond much if you volunteer such information, because he is not likely to be comfortable in the realm of the emotions. This doesn’t mean he has no feelings; to the contrary, he likely feels things very deeply. He is probably at a loss for how to express them, however, and at a loss for how to offer you support when you express yours. Emotions generally don’t make sense to him.
  • If you look at the arc of your mother’s life and see a constriction in her self-expression now compared to how she was when she was younger, it may be because it is so very difficult to be married to someone with ASD. Years of feeling judged and criticized have left their mark. She is lonely and tired, and she has no emotional support from the man she loves. She likely has deep pain that even she doesn’t understand. She may seem resigned to growing old, even though she is not old at all. She is likely to know your father better than anyone else. She may find great relief in your courage to come to her and raise the question. This is something for you to think about carefully, however, because sometimes bringing up ASD can sound like an accusation instead of a thoughtful inquiry to those prepared to be defensive.
  • Many people who have ASD do not like to be hugged, nor do they hug others freely. It may not make sense, or it may be physically uncomfortable. Regardless, it is not to be taken personally because it is not meant personally. It is tough to think your father doesn’t want to hug you, but remember: he probably doesn’t like to hug anyone at all.
  • Older adults with ASD have spent their lives trying to figure out the neurotypical world, often with great fears of never quite getting things right. This may create constant anxiety, and being on the spectrum is above all exhausting. This is why preferring to be alone for long hours is so important: transitions between one state and another (from the office to home, for example) can feel almost impossible to manage. After years of anxiety, depression is not unusual in individuals with ASD. In fact, anxiety and depression are the hallmarks of adult ASD. Your father may not describe himself as anxious or depressed, but his behavior may demonstrate these qualities.
  • Your anger and frustration make sense if your father has ASD. You are just now beginning to wonder about this. Memories of frustration and disillusionment may come flooding into your mind. Remember this: you did the best you could possibly do given your age and experience at any particular phase in your life. Feeling guilty now may make sense to you, but it isn’t in your best interest because when you were growing up, you didn’t do anything with the sole intent of hurting your father. You just wanted him to be your dad. You may have acted out. That’s what kids do because they are not mature enough to do anything else. Now that you are older and more mature yourself, your inquiry is also more mature. Cut yourself some slack. This is a time to be gentle with yourself.
  • Above all, the most salient point regarding ASD is this: what you see and experience in your father’s words and behavior may be different from what he means by them. It is critical to understand that your father is probably not intending to hurt you, and at the same time it is imperative to acknowledge that your pain is real. This is the great tragedy of ASD.

What can you do now that you have these questions? I recommend finding a therapist who has both a keen understanding of autism spectrum issues as well as deep compassion for those on the spectrum and for those in that person’s life. Make an appointment to discuss your thoughts and your concerns. Feel welcome to ask many questions so you can gain a sound grasp of what it means to have ASD. Remember, however, that no therapist can diagnose your father in absentia; he would need to be present in order for this to be done.

When we do ASD evaluations as psychotherapists, we generally meet with the individual for several sessions to gather as much information as we can. Since there is no specific test for ASD, the process is narrative. Meetings with the spouse or children are of great importance in this process, because by definition people with ASD are not able to provide insight into what it is like to love them and to live with them.

If after a few sessions you believe your father may have ASD, you can discuss with your therapist whether bringing this question to your father might be a good idea. There are possible benefits, to be sure. There are also possible risks. You may find it is enough for you to understand ASD well enough that you can now relate differently to your father. Or you may decide you’d like to talk to him about the possibility of coming with you to therapy to share what you are learning.

There is always the possibility this will come to him like rain in the desert and that he will welcome the opportunity to explore the possibility he has ASD. I have seen many adults cry when they recognize themselves in the diagnosis, because for the first time, certain things about their experiences over a lifetime finally begin to make sense to them. ASD becomes the key that unlocks a lifetime of mysteries.

On the other hand, he may give you a blank (or even hostile) look and dismiss the subject. If so, it may not be a good idea to push it. He has built his life with an understanding of himself that has served him well enough by his definition. Perhaps the inquiry and exploration will be for you alone. It can still be helpful to you, even without his involvement.

Finally, please remember that if your father has ASD, you likely have had a difficult childhood. It will be important for you to find a therapist who understands the impact of ASD on your life. I wish you well in your inquiry, and hope a new understanding will lead to hope and forgiveness in your life from this day forward.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Joseph

    Joseph

    June 10th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    This could provide you with some of the answers that you have always looked for with your parents but I don’t think that in most of them it will be cause for anything to really change. It is how they have been and they are probably not going to make any definitive changes, nor should they really have to, at this stage of life I guess. Maybe it could though give you a better appreciation for what drives them and help bring some understanding to you and that could have been missing.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    June 11th, 2016 at 9:09 PM

    Hello, Joseph – I agree with you. Expecting change in an aging parent is unrealistic in many cases, regardless of whether ASD is present. The reason to investigate the possibility would be to help a person understand the parent rather than to count on the parent’s changing. Understanding can offer great relief and compassion.

  • Maria S.

    Maria S.

    June 11th, 2016 at 2:37 PM

    This could also apply to siblings who have yet to be diagnosed and for many years mis-diagnosed…Sad

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    June 11th, 2016 at 9:06 PM

    Hello, Maria – yes, I agree; considering ASD in a sibling is another possibility.

  • Annie

    Annie

    June 11th, 2016 at 2:40 PM

    Why is it that all of a sudden this feels like it is the catch all diagnosis any time that there is anything questionable? Maybe it is the answer but it could be something else too.

  • Sara

    Sara"th Swenson

    June 11th, 2016 at 9:05 PM

    Hello, Annie – you are absolutely right. This is why I recommend seeking professional assessment if you are wondering about autism. Autism is not a catch-all diagnosis. It is a very specific neurological condition that requires thoughtful investigation.

  • jonathan

    jonathan

    June 13th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Does it matter? This is a parent or a child, you won’t sop loving them because of that

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    June 16th, 2016 at 9:11 PM

    Hello, Jonathan – you’re right: you won’t stop loving a parent or a child as a result of considering whether autism is present. However, if it is present, understanding it will help you understand your relationship and your parent/child much better.

  • Emily

    Emily

    June 14th, 2016 at 11:29 AM

    We all have different ways of showing the people in our life our love. That doesn’t make one way right or wrong, just different.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    June 16th, 2016 at 9:13 PM

    Hello, Emily – I completely agree with you. Having autism doesn’t make a person right or wrong; it does, however, present differences in many areas (particularly in communication styles) which are worth understanding.

  • Emily

    Emily

    June 17th, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    Yeah, I know. And if this is the kind of person that you have grown up knowing then it would be strange so much later on to have to learn how to communicate with them differently.

  • frank

    frank

    June 20th, 2016 at 9:19 AM

    so are you saying that genetically this could be a piece of the puzzle that could have been missing in your own quest for information about a possibly autistic child?

  • Chmba C.

    Chmba C.

    March 6th, 2019 at 8:22 AM

    Women have ASD too. Continuously saying ‘dad’ is not really very helpful.

  • BaO

    BaO

    May 12th, 2019 at 7:02 AM

    Hi, Chmba C. Of course women also have ASD. However, in the beginning of the article, the author states pretty clearly that he will choose the dad as an example throughout the article… Just pointing that out.

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    July 16th, 2019 at 3:34 AM

    This is my father. To me, his overarching quality is the brain full of remembered information. He knows so much. My older sister couldn’t stand him and he (my father) sort of didn”t notice when y briother was birn, 6 years after me, so I had him all to myself on the rare occassions that he was home. He liked to do all the maintenance on his quirky Englissh car, and I loved cars (yes, a girl who loved cars in high school) so I would attempt to help him out with thhe cars. There were many ways to get yelled at while dooing that. For isntance if you’rwe being told to do something with a car battery that you’re afraid will shock you, “It’s ony 12 volts! It won;t kill you!” or having to drive an old car with a jumpy transmission up onto a pair of narrow metal ramps without overshooting or veering right or left by more than an inch and ending up on the grund with the ramps jammed into the cars tender underbelly! Oh, the thrills. I realized not long ago (I’m well over 50) that my siblings must be complete ignoramuses. They did not spend hours listing to our father download everything he knows about how milk used to be sored and used before refrigeration, how to develop film and make photographic prints, or how, more or less, and internal combustion engine works. The difference between them and me is that, though we all felt hurt when he yelled at us, I didn’t hold onto the hurt or live in fear of the next angering. He never struck us (nor did our mother).
    Thanks for the informative and interesting article.

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    November 22nd, 2019 at 11:57 AM

    I came to read this because I wonder if my Mother is on the spectrum due to her detached way of raised us, but you only talked about a father and Autism manifests quite differently in women and girls so it’s not enough to say “let’s just suppose it’s your father”; you need to go through the scenarios with both. My Mother has plenty of friends, but if you listen to her talking with them she just says lines, things other people say, she doesn’t understand emotions at all. Like if one of her friend’s rings her about their family member being in hospital or their friend dying, you hear her say things that people say but I can tell their is no actual sympathy or empathy. It doesn’t make her sad or affect her at all. However, she’s great at practical support. Good in a crisis because she always keeps it together. She is extremely unsentimental and prone to throw any sentimental objects belonging to children away in order to ‘help them to grow up’. These discarded objects may be treasured to the child yet my Mum will remember this throw out as a positive intervention and proudly re-tell the story.
    She only ever kissed the air beside your cheek and never hugged. If you cried she suspected you were just trying to get attention and poo poo’d any idea you could be sad or depressed. She never showed sympathy to us as children. If you said ‘Mum I’ve got a headache”, she’d say ‘well what do you want me to do about it?’ in a tone like you’re telling her something pointless, then ‘go take a panadol’. She always medicated us rather than comfort us. When I was really little another way she’d deal with injury is to say ‘I told you so’ eg you didn’t wear your shoes. She also had a tendency to say the wrong thing to acquaintances, like make a comment that she didn’t see as rude or inappropriate yet it is obviously going to make that person feel bad or embarrassed. Whilst she was a little too good at teaching me how to do domestic chores, she never actually taught me anything to prepare me for being a woman, having relationships or give me any kind of life advice that isn’t just an overused line. If anything, her constant criticism, especially at a moment when you needed encouragement or praise, set me on a path of low self worth for most of my life. If I said ‘I’m going to look for a job’, she’d say but you’ve got no experience. Or I want to be an artist, ‘you can’t earn any money as an artist’.
    You know the type of thing, yet there was never any encouragement or advice of any use at all. No homework help. No help with planning career goals. No conversations about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Literally no interest at all until much much later when I was an adult and even then she still had no advice or encouragement of any actual substance. This doesn’t really explain properly who she is but it’s just some examples. Selfish is the other thing. She loves her kids, wants them near her and for them to be happy, but I seriously wonder on a regular basis whether she actually knows me at all.

  • Bell

    Bell

    November 27th, 2019 at 5:08 PM

    I can relate- A LOT. Thank you for being so specific with your description. I was traumatized because I never heard of anyone else having a mother-like this and didn’t receive much validation for the pain it caused. It always felt like she was looking at me and not seeing a person but instead an object. And it was especially difficult because of the guilt that came when I felt angry, irritable and resentful. So not only was I confused, neglected, and hurt, but also wracked with guilt, making it really difficult to get closure and resolution. I felt guilty because she gave financial help generously but gave almost nothing conversationally and emotionally. Second, I was forced into an emotional caretaker role at a very young age, as she seemed to act like a small child for much of the time. Yet I felt guity being angry with someone who presents as a helpless young child and seems to have such good intentions. Yet I was highly damaged by her obliviousness. There was no help in my family to conceptualize what was happening, nor anyone who would even acknowledge her deficits. Which would have helped me at least feel sane and could have led to a support system. I had to imagine what a normal relationship would look like. I assumed that in a normal relationship that if someone was doing something to hurt you, you would bring it up and try to find a solution. When I brought up anything, including the level of stress caused by her constant criticism, dumping responsibilty on me and lack of emotional attunement, she would simply stare at me blankly, and walk away and then come back a few minutes later and talk about something she was obsessed with like the sticky spot on the counter. I felt utterly annihilated, confused and frightened (it’s kind of creepy and nightmarish in some ways) because of the lack of human response. It led to many year of depression, confusion and emotional disturbance for me. It has taken years to unpack and come to terms with. I hope that this is talked about more, so that people can get help sooner and don’t feel as lost in the wilderness as I did.

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    November 29th, 2019 at 1:47 PM

    Bell, I can definitely recommend reading up about CEN – childhood emotional neglect. There is a specialist who blogs on the subject and has written books, her name is Dr Jonice Webb. Finally I feel like someone understands this situation.

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    November 29th, 2019 at 2:05 PM

    “I felt annihilated” that is such a good way to put it Bell – I’d really like to talk more about this as I’ve never met anyone who describes the same experience as me – it has had a huge impact on my life.

  • Bell

    Bell

    November 30th, 2019 at 10:53 AM

    As I’ve been processing this, I’m finding some forgiveness, for her and myself. As fate would have it, I had a job for 10 years in a center that helped people with developmental disabilities, including people with Autism (this was before I came to terms with my own background- my brother is also on the spectrum and for all I know, I have a toe on the spectrum myself) The young adults with autism that I worked with had pretty bright futures. Nowadays, people are diagnosed early and they can get excellent services, which really help them understand themselves and others much better. They understand how they are different, and what the neurotypical world is like, so they are more self aware, and can communicate what they need, and process what you need much better, depending on the severity of the condition. They accept themselves, so they seem to be much less judgmental of themselves and others, than my parent, probably because they’ve gotten appropriate support, so they don’t feel as lost or potentially inadequate themselves. As I reflect, I realize that my mother had no such help growing up, and in fact probably faced a good deal of hostility and punishment. She was completely on her own with a developmental disability that there wasn’t even a diagnosis for, much less any treatment. She didn’t have any support, and neither did I. And god knows how I struggled. A lot of my anger and resentment seem to be dissipating after understanding this. I feel sad for both us, and less mad at her or myself. At this point, I guess I’m grappling with how can I support her and myself at the same time, and acknowledge my own boundaries and limitations. She doesn’t seem open to therapy or acknowledging she might have a disability (I’ve tried, and gently suggested that she might be on the spectrum), so it’s hard to know what to do.

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    November 30th, 2019 at 1:54 PM

    Bell you seem to be focusing on her/them/people with autism spectrum disorder. What about you? How do you/can you heal? People who suffer because of childhood emotional neglect (CEN) tend to have one sided relationships where they do all the giving to the other person but their own needs are not met. When I was a child I had to look after my two younger siblings then an even younger was born when I was 11 years old and I looked after him as well. He says I was his second Mum. That’s not ok. Knowing about CEN and one sided relationships has given me a great deal of clarity about my relationships and friendship problems in my lifetime, but not a road to recover and create balanced attachments where my needs are met too. I want to know how to heal from this not what to do for my Mum. She is fine. She started life out far more privileged than me and will end it that way. She had a half sister 15 years older than her who married into a wealthy family and my Mum’s first job was working for her sister’s husband in London after secretarial school. She loved organising things and people so she enjoyed work and excelled at it. She was no outcast and didn’t struggle with social isolation. There is no way she would believe there is anything wrong with her at all because if anything ever went wrong in her friendships or in her marriage she always blamed the other person and could see faults in them as glaringly obvious as she could pick spelling mistakes off a page of text. My father was the scapegoat for everything dysfunctional in our lives and she painted herself as the good guy, him as the bad guy. Yet he was loving and affectionate and could see us as individuals with unique personalities. He was however a very difficult and troubled man and he harmed us through his yelling, threats, control games and intimidation so he was an easy scapegoat. I don’t need to feel sorry for my Mum. She has the life she wants. She doesn’t miss not having deep emotions or engaging with emotional atonement to her children and the other siblings don’t seem to care or notice any more. I am a HSP. I notice acutely. Anytime I email news to my Mum I feel a little deflated when I see the perfunctory response. I have never felt a daughterly connection to her. It’s a long rope attachment that consists of her being a reliable rock in the family. She’s great with finances (unlike my Dad who had nothing when he died). She’s sort of good in a crisis because she never falls apart or cries or demonstrates any distress. She is quite good at the social game as a dependable person she is also good at maintaining ties. Turns out social circles like detached people who just conform to the things people say – that generation anyway. I on the other hand have not been able to maintain ties with anyone and if it wasn’t for my adult daughter being around I would be a satellite. I feel my emotional needs are deep and not of interest to your average person and long to connect with people who would want something much more intrinsic than a social tie.

  • Bell

    Bell

    December 2nd, 2019 at 8:00 AM

    I can see how that relationship with your mom, is one sided and unfulfilling. Especially since you are fiercely attuned and she’s not. And your needs are not being acknowledged or met at all. Why wouldn’t you feel alienated from her? We have much in common. I’m also HSP. I struggle to find stable, fulfilling relationship, where they are as attuned to me and as I am to them. It rarely happens and it can lead to despair sometimes. I would share my contact information with you, so we can chat, but I don’t want to put it out for the world to see here and can’t figure out how to DM anyone on this article…

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    December 2nd, 2019 at 3:24 PM

    Bell it is so interesting that you used the word “despair” in your comment as I literally just stepped away from doing a “labeling emotions” meditation before reading your post – it’s from the Chris Germer website and despair was the emotion I named – it took me two goes to get there as it’s not a word I usually use. My despair is similarly because after all these years I have not made a lasting close connection, and channeling that energy into my Mum and sister is not a good solution as they continue to send me messages that are not to me, as in they don’t know who I am. I have been trying, through email, to explain to my sister about this issue of CEN and that HSP is not a disorder. She is so very like my Mum – not sure if it is emulation or disposition or both and seems intent on using terms that are judgmental like “too” sensitive and refers to self care as treatment (because she seems to get some comfort or if not pleasure at least preference for me to be seen as and thought of as broken, less or insufficient). Meanwhile she has no idea who I am and sent a link to a website that totally misunderstands HSPs including a book to help HSPs gain immunity and self mastery over sensitivity. I sent back to her links to Elaine Aron’s webiste, youtube discussion and research (I read her books many years ago and was on a HSP forum but then forgot some of the great support and advice and lost contact. This week I found a HSP forum for Australians but hardly anyone is on there. Do you know of any existing forums or chat rooms for HSPs? ) I also sent a link to Chris Germer self-compassion and loving kindness meditations to try to help them to understand and maybe even learn something new. So far no response and I am not optimistic, also dreading the family Christmas which I have avoided two years or more as it’s usually a competitive stressful environment that includes my sister, three brothers and all their kids (mine are grown up). My older brother has always been argumentative and his idea of winning is to be the most pushy. One year I arrived from a beach camp all zen and they all piled out of two cars fresh from Sydney traffic and started fighting over rooms – the usual – so I never rent a house with them now. Here my sister was advising me to try meditation as a treatment when I am the one who since I was a teen spent long periods in quiet reflection in nature and have attended yoga including Satyananda yoga nidra and tai chi etc. at different times in my life, whereas my sister has not to my knowledge ever done anything like this yet she’s advising me to learn meditation. Sigh. I’m going to try the ‘compassionate letter to yourself’ exercise and make the scenario person a mother figure/wise female. I haven’t tried this process before but was recently reading about narrative therapy.

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    January 20th, 2020 at 8:29 AM

    Your description of your experience with your mother as a child is nearly identical to the one I wrote this morning of my experience with my mother. I began to research this in response to a suggestion made by a close friend who is a counselor. She was so gentle and compassionate with her choice of words. “Is it possible that your mother could be on the spectrum? Might her behavior that seemed cold and distant and emotionally cruel be explained by that? How would your feelings about yourself change?” I can relate wholeheartedly to these descriptions of mothers with ASD. I’ve spent my life wondering what was wrong with me—with us really—because she simply wasn’t emotionally involved with us at any stage of our lives. I especially related to the observation that one’s mother often seemed to be simply reciting lines from a script. She was only mimicking what she heard others say. There was no sense that she felt any emotions the words meant to convey. She’s extremely sensitive and emotionally immature. She has said time and again that she simply doesn’t know what to say to people and is confused when they accuse her of being rude. She had one friend. Later, she formed acquaintances, but these are shallow and it’s quite clear that she has no attachment to the women she socializes with. Her pure obsession was her husband. She organized her entire life around him. He was an alcoholic but I don’t think she suffered a bit from the muting effect alcohol dependence has on a person’s emotional life. She had far lower expectations about what constituted a meaningful relationship. They had a strict routine and I’m sure she found that comforting. It was a painful and confusing home to live in as a child.
    I am so grateful you shared your experience here. I was sobbing last night anticipating an upcoming visit (she visits twice a year for about two hours a time). I was trying to manage my expectations and prepare myself that she won’t be interested in my interior life. She will want to collect facts about my life. Knowing the facts of our lives is sufficient for her. Knowing us as people is unimaginable. I’ve spent 50 years thinking I must have been an unlovable child and an irritating and obnoxious adult. It was the only way I could explain her behavior to myself. Now, I can reframe our story with understanding and compassion.

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    January 20th, 2020 at 1:09 PM

    Cindy I relate to so much of what you have expressed. My Mum ran a household to strict routines and time schedules and her friendships were ‘matter of fact’ arrangements for her. She is a woman with a calendar where she marks down people’s birthdays, her appointments etc and then follows through dutifully on all counts. However my Mum is not highly sensitive. She is not emotional at all so her immaturity psychologically is not really apparent to people around her so much but she is unable to engage with any emotional depth. So it is exactly as you describe, reaching out is just a painful thing to do because she will only need a short, factual update. I have to say that much of her behaviour parallels the experience of people with narcissistic mothers who are not histrionic. Anyway, I am feeling fine every since I stopped reaching out to her for wisdom after gaining a better understanding of CEN (childhood emotional neglect) and the patterns adults who experienced it get into – eg continuing to try to get that fulfillment. She doesn’t have any wisdom to offer me. She has literally no insights on the world or life after 75 years. Did you know that 50% of people with ASD also have alexithymia – that is “inability to verbalize their emotions, either due to their unawareness of the feelings that corresponded to these emotions or due to their confusion of emotional and bodily feelings. Indeed, they would typically describe their emotional experience in terms of the somatic sensations they incurred, reflecting the so called “operatory thinking” which had already been described by Marty and de M’Uzan (1963) and Marty et al. (1963). Their incapacity to speak of their emotions was further accompanied by an impoverished narrative style, especially in the use of figures of speech and metaphors, and by a characteristic aprosodia, as if the emotional experience were uninteresting and extraneous to them.” Don’t break your heart over and over. Let go of her. I’m being bossy now haha. But it’s been a huge step forward for me so I’m guessing it would help anyone in a similar situation. Accept her limitations and instead turn your awareness to yourself, self care and to giving your own depth of experience eg depth psychology, meditation, art journaling, being in nature – whatever works for you. :)

  • Kathryn

    Kathryn

    November 27th, 2019 at 11:54 PM

    My step-mother almost certainly has adult ASD — she fits absolutely every description I’ve read so far, and realizing this has gone a long way to help me be more compassionate in light of some of her behaviour that comes across as quite cold and hurtful. But as her step-daughter, she is at arms length; I wasn’t raised by her, and I only see her occasionally when visiting my dad. I do, however notice how her neurodivergence impacts her life and her relationships, and I am now wondering whether I have a duty to bring this information to her or those close to her. On the one hand, I feel she’d receive this information very poorly (she is incredibly judgmental of other people’s issues, even when they bear no responsibility for them, so I suspect she might find this insulting or would just ignore it entirely), but on the other hand I have read people’s stories of being diagnosed with adult ASD and finally having a lifelong mystery solved… like they can finally finish the puzzle. Alternatively, it might go a long way to helping my dad relate to her better and have a greater understanding of why she is the way she is – so perhaps it’s worth bringing it up to him?
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated. My dad’s family doesn’t have a very high awareness of mental health or neurodiversity/ASD, and so I’m wary of how this might be received given the unfortunate negative associations with disorders like this. What would your do?!

  • Alegria

    Alegria

    November 30th, 2019 at 2:00 PM

    Kathryn my suggestion is to discuss this with those around her who are affected by the way she raised them, how she is or isn’t, rather than with her as she may not want to hear it and may not feel there is any need to know or to change who she is or work at anything in her relationships. Someone closer to her will know whether to mention it to her at all.

  • J

    J

    December 31st, 2019 at 11:15 PM

    I think my dad has Aspergers. Ironically it took a relationship with a guy who has Aspergers, wherein I kept feeling hurt over and over again by his thoughtlessness (not on purpose but just out of unawareness) and insensitivity to my feelings and needs, for it to dawn on me that my dad also has this condition. I knew, growing up, that my dad didn’t have a “great” personality, because he was passive aggressive, took no interest in me or my life, had no friends etc. I became aware in recent years that what I experienced was childhood emotional neglect. But still, I did not suspect that my dad could be on the Autism spectrum. To be honest, I just thought he had a bad personality, with narcissistic traits, lack of empathy, emotional immaturity. Now I realise, after my relationship with the Aspergers guy, and after reading up on Aspergers, that a lot of these characteristics are found in people with Aspergers. I’m not quite sure what I am, and whether or not I am partly in the spectrum myself or if I’ve just picked up faulty social behaviours from having a father with Aspergers. Because on one hand, growing up I also have had issues forming and maintaining close connections with others. I have some friends, but it is never easy for me to instantly click with new people. I’ve had depression and anxiety for most of my life. I don’t seem to be able to form close bonds easily. Sometimes I’ve formed close bonds only to lose them again due to some disagreement or misunderstanding or other. I don’t know if this is due to my having not gained healthy social or communication skills from my parents, or if I’ve inherited some ASD traits from my dad. Because on the other hand, I tend to be overly empathetic and considerate of other people’s needs (symptoms of childhood emotional neglect, I know) and I tend to end up in friendships or relationships where the other person is more on the self-absorbed or entitled side, and I end up giving more than they give back. Honestly at this point I’m just sick and tired of having wasted my youth and early adult life struggling to function as a normal person and feeling unhappy. Maybe I am on the borderline between Aspergers and NT, if there is such a thing? OR maybe I am a HSP NT who “picked up” on unhealthy social habits and behaviours from my dad, who was a poor role model of how to form relationships with others? No offense to those on the ASD spectrum, but honestly, speaking as a someone who is a child of a parent on the spectrum, and who had a very difficult childhood, adolescence and young adult life (~15 years of depression without treatment, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, lack of really close friendships etc), if you’re on the spectrum I would really reconsider having a child. If you’re incapable of providing a healthy upbringing (not just physically providing, but also providing for them emotionally) for a child, then it is a really selfish thing to go ahead and have that kid. To bring a child into this world just because you want one, and the child ends up having to suffer with a miserable existence and a failed adult life, due to the lack of a parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs. Sorry to sound this way, but I truly believe it would have been better if my ASD dad did not have kids. In fact, when he’s been angry at me, guess what he’s said? He’s said he wished he never had a kid anyway, that he only did it because he felt like it was “expected” of him. Some great father material right there.

    Not entirely sure where I’m going with this, I’m basically just venting out of anger at this point. But I truly think ASD people need to consider whether having a kid is the right thing to do, because most likely it is just going to damage the child and they will end up wasting their life. I am pretty sure that if I had different parents, ones who were more in tune with my emotions, and supportive of me and my dreams (or even just took an interest or notice of my interests/dreams, how bout that?!), then I would have had a very different life. I would probably have achieved a lot of the things I dreamed of achieving as a kid. Unfortunately a lot of shit got in the way of becoming successful and happy. Having a shit childhood and wasting so many years due to depression (which stemmed from emotional neglect and emotional and verbal abuse from my parents) has meant that I am very behind in many aspects of my life compared to my peers of the same age, in terms of career, relationships etc. And also instead of enjoying my youth, like most people do, I spent the entire time in emotional pain. It was a miracle that I was still able to keep up my grades and get through university without killing myself, which I considered doing on several occasions. Due to my experiences, I personally never want to have a kid. Because I might have ASD traits myself and I do not ever want to put an innocent human life through the crap I’ve had to deal with during my relatively brief time on earth. ASD people should not have kids. I know that is a controversial opinion, but as someone who has experienced having an ASD parent, I think I am allowed to have this opinion, as I have experienced the life-lasting detrimental effects first hand.

  • A

    A

    January 1st, 2020 at 12:55 PM

    I think my mom is on the asperger spectrum but she always tries to hide it, especially to strangers. I often felt like her mind is made of wheels, and she never acts with her heart. She criticizes me and my twin sister a lot, she is very judgmental and controlling. I’ve tried to please her all my life and she always disapprove everything I do, or who I am basically. She behaves as if she is in competition with me. If I succeed in something she seems jealous or sarcastic. She doesn’t give me any type of sincere compliments or approbation.
    She always wants to show everyone that she knows more about any kind of subject and she can argue ferociously if people contradict her. She also doesn’t get jokes, she doesn’t realize it’s a joke unless it’s clearly specified.
    My youngest sister has always been her favorite and since my grand-mother died (her mother), she doesn’t bother to hide it anymore.
    It is very hard to live with a parent like this, my self-esteem has always been affected. Now I don’t live in the same province than her and I feel better.
    I don’t think there is a chance that she will ever change, those protective mechanisms that she developed over time are there to hide how uncomfortable she feels with people I think.

  • Ida

    Ida

    April 26th, 2020 at 1:28 PM

    @Kathryn, would you mind explaining how your stepmother acts?
    I have just recently realized (like a week ago), that my dad most likely has ASD, and now I am starting to wonder, if my step mother also has ASD. I am not very close to her, and to be honest I don’t really like her. She has never showed any interest in me and my brother, and as I grew older, I thought that maybe she was jealous of us – and that was the reason why she behaved as she did towards us. She met my father when I was about 10-11 years old and now I am 33. She would sometimes ignore us completely when we came to visit for a weekend; like for the whole weekend. She would say hello and goodbye, and that was it. And I mean we ate all meals together. It was sooooo uncomfortable to be in the house, when she was like this. She has not been keen on spending any money on my brother and I (that’s what I have concluded based on years of observations), so my dad and her keeps their finances split. She doesn’t have many friends, and her and my dad rarely go out. And when we are out, it is clearly that she doesn’t like small talking and getting to know new people. She prefers to stay at home. She is very perfectionistic as well. She never liked hugging and still doesn’t (uuhh it feels so awkward when we hug!).. However I rarely know her, and thus I am very interested in hearing how your stepmother behaves?

  • B

    B

    June 29th, 2020 at 3:23 PM

    Is my parent autistic because they are always talking to themselves? saying over and over “I’m so tired” “I’ve just had enough” I know this could be just because they are tired, but it really really scares me. I don’t think she understands my emotions… my sibling is also autistic. Is autism genetic enough for it to be passed down to your child?

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