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.

  • 12 comments
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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?

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