Autism in parents
As I’ve mentioned before, there are around 700 thousand autistic people in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100. Many of those aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, including me. Some may have sought a formal diagnosis, others will have read about autism and decided they probably are autistic, but don’t feel they need a diagnosis. But ultimately, no two autistic people are the same. They have their own personalities, abilities, talents and life experiences, and autism affects people in different ways.
How will my parent’s autism affect me?
Having an autistic parent could affect you and your family in many different ways. Here are some situations I’ve heard about:
My Dad doesn’t seem to know if I’m feeling a bit down. Why is that?
Your dad might not notice that you’re upset if he finds it difficult to interpret facial expressions and body language. If your dad knows you’re upset, he might not be sure of the best way to comfort you. You might need to say that you need a hug. An autistic parent might not realise that you need to be told that they love you. They may expect you to already know that they love you, and feel that it’s obvious.
I get a bit confused at times, as I’m not sure when dad’s actually speaking to me.
You may find that your dad doesn’t look you in the eyes when he’s talking to you. Some autistic people can find it very hard to make or hold eye contact. Or he may seem to stare at a fixed spot, and this can end up making you feel awkward and embarrassed. Neither of these things mean that your dad isn’t listening to you or considering what you are saying. It’s just hard for him to know how best to deal with the conversation.
Why doesn’t my dad seem to understand what people mean?
Autistic people can take longer than others to take in what people are saying. They may need time to think about what’s been said, before answering. Your dad might find it helpful if you speak to him in short, clear sentences and allow time for him to process the information before expecting a response.
My dad is obsessed with Batman and talks about it all the time
It’s quite common for autistic people to have an intense interest, which is often called a “narrow field of focus”. Some people will love the same thing all their lives, while others will go through phases of different special interests. If you don’t share your dad’s interest, it may be useful to him if you could tell him clearly when he can and can’t talk to you about his intense interest. You can explain that you have other things you need to do, such as homework. If you’re clear about the boundaries, he will undoubtedly be happy to follow them.
Dad keeps on at me about school all the time and shouts at me if I don’t do things straight away.
Lots of young people feel pressure from their parents about school as parents just want their children to get a good education. They may also expect their children to help out around the house. However, if your dad spends a lot of time talking about how hard you should study or asking you to do chores, it can be stressful for you.
Try explaining to your dad that, whilst you know these things are important, you need to do other things and have some free time. It may take time for him to understand this. You can help by giving examples, keeping what you say short and clear or writing it down so that he can refer back to it.
Autistic people can have a literal understanding of speech, so if you say you will do something “in a minute”, meaning “quite soon”, your dad may well be expecting you to do it in one minute’s time. If you can be clear and exact when answering him will help you both.
My dad’s really cross when I play the music I like.
Like anyone, some autistic people love music, some don’t. Your dad’s taste in music is very likely to be different to yours.
It’s important to think about any sensory sensitivities that your parent might have when you play your music. If your dad gets really cross about it or puts his hands over his ears, even when it’s not very loud, it may be that he has very sensitive hearing. This can be very painful for those people who have it.
Try to compromise, perhaps only playing your music loudly when you know he is out of the house or listen to it through headphones. Or stop listening to Justin fucking Beiber…
Dad gets really stressed about me socialising. What can I do?
It’s possible that your dad doesn’t see the need to socialise, and so finds it strange that you want to have a group of friends. You bringing friends home could make him anxious as he might not find it easy to have strangers in the house. It will be a break from his routine and hard to deal with.
Try talking to your dad about what you get out of friendships such as companionship, a chance to talk, laugh and share common interests. It can also help to:
check with your dad that it’s OK to go out, giving him clear details of where you’re going, who with, and when you’ll be back
prepare your dad for your friends’ visits by telling him when they’re coming, for how long and what room you will be in. Try to stick to what you’ve agreed when your friends are there.
tell your friends beforehand that your dad is autistic – this might help them understand some of the things that they may find a little unusual in your dad’s behaviour and why he might be really strict about you being home when you said you would be.
Dad gets stressed if something unexpected happens
Autistic people have a need for routine, which helps them make sense of the world around them. They can become anxious if there is a break or a change to their usual routine. Your parent may have rules they need to stick to and will find it easier to cope if they have warning of any changes. This can be hard on you, as you may like to be spontaneous.
If you break one of the rules he needs to have in place, wait until your dad is calm before talking to him about why the rule was broken. Explain that some things are out of your control, for example being late home due to a late bus or car breakdown.
If you know that something different to the normal routine is going to happen, tell your dad , say why this change is happening, and when things will go back to normal.
Acknowledging your needs
Growing up with an autistic parent can sometimes be lonely, confusing and scary, especially if your parent sometimes has meltdowns. You may be angry that your friends’ parents are different to yours and feel that this is unfair. You may be the only person in your family who isn’t autistic, leaving you feeling isolated. It may often feel as if your needs are secondary to your autistic parent’s
It’s important that you talk to other people about your experiences. Confide in an adult such as a friend, family member, teacher or pastoral support worker about what is happening at home and ask for their support, or contact childline. Remember to explain that your parent is autistic.
There are a couple of good books too
My Parent has an Autism Spectrum Disorder A Workbook for Children and Teens by Barbara R. Lester
Something Different About Dad by Kirsti Evans and John Swogger