I Forgive You, Dad
How realising my father had autism helped me make come to terms with our difficult relationship.
I had a difficult relationship with my father, but not for same reason as other kids. I was not a rebellious rule-breaker and he was not overly strict or neglectful. He did not abuse me or my mother. He was always attentive, generous and ready to help. On outward appearances he was the kind of father my friends wished they had, yet I felt ashamed and guilty for wishing I had a ‘normal’ dad.
I wasn’t a normal child
Ever since I can remember, I can recall the feeling that I was an odd child and something of a disappointment to my parents. No matter how well I followed the rules or how hard I worked to make them happy, to do what was expected of me, it felt like it was never good enough.
I was fussy and whiny. I was an extremely picky eater to the point of being malnourished because I refused to eat anything I didn’t like, which was pretty much everything. I was a quiet and withdrawn child, even as a baby I rarely cried and I would shy away from anyone unfamiliar. I was clumsy and had poor coordination. My mother often told me how embarrassed she would get to be seen in public with me when I was a toddler because I stubbornly insisted on crawling. I only started walking after the age of two. I remember my father’s frustration that I couldn’t seem to learn to catch or throw a ball.
I was an only child and because of where we lived, rarely had other children to play with. When my parents did try enrolling me in a kindergarten I got so anxious by it that they never took me back after that first day and I spent the rest of my early childhood playing happily on my own.
I guess they hoped I would grow out of it, but things only got worse when I started school. I still preferred to be on my own, I didn’t make friends easily, was bullied mercilessly and my teachers said I was too quiet. I just wasn’t normal. I remember Dad telling me from an early age, over and over, that there was something wrong with me and I had to try harder to be like the other kids. This was when my resentment towards him began. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me and I didn’t want to be like the other kids (why would I want to be like the kids who bullied me?) and I wanted Dad to like me the way I was.
There is a scene in the TV show Lucifer, where a father is complaining about his son, saying that he wishes he was a normal kid instead of spending all his free time playing the violin. Then Ella says to him, “But, don’t you get it? That’s what makes him special”. I just wanted my father to love me for my specialness instead of rejecting me for my lack of normality.
My parents did take me to see various doctors as a child but they never found anything wrong with me. I didn’t have developmental delays or cognitive impairment. I wasn’t crippled or retarded, to use the terms that were used back in the 1970s. As far as they could tell, I was perfectly healthy and this reinforced the belief that my odd behaviours, fussiness and shyness were my fault, that I was behaving that way on purpose.
Things got a bit better at high school when I finally started making friends, though they were apparently not the right kind of friends either, because they too were not ‘normal’. I fitted in with the nerds, the science boffins, the socially-awkward and social outcasts. I joined the science clubs and the writers’ circle and I loved the feeling of belonging with others who were like me and we had solidarity together against all the bullies and jerks. It pissed me off that Dad was disappointed that I wasn’t interested in girly things and that he constantly criticised me for not being feminine enough, that I didn’t like wearing dresses or make-up and that he wished I went out to parties instead of astronomy star-watching nights. He seemed like such a hypocrite when he himself was a nerd and preferred intellectual activities and hated going to parties and social gatherings.
I wasn’t a problem child, I rarely misbehaved, I followed my parents’ rules, I didn’t rebel, I didn’t drink, smoke, take drugs or go to wild parties. I even enjoyed the same kind of interests as my parents, so it confused me why Dad was so disappointed that I wasn’t more normal. I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to make him happy, when if I had done all the ‘normal’ things teenagers do, he would have been angry at me for being rebellious. I was the kind of well-behaved and polite teenager most parents wished they had, so it made no sense that I was such a disappointment to him.
Though I had been identified as a gifted child early on, I failed to live up to my potential by not getting the A-aggregate grades that were expected of me. While I excelled in subjects that interested me, I struggled with those that didn’t. Not that I ever failed a subject or did that badly – even in my weaker subjects I achieved above average grades. But Dad had an all-or-nothing mentality and no matter how well I did, I would be reprimanded for ‘failing’ when I passed with a C or D in a subject.
The one thing I truly excelled at, that I consistently did well in was English and in particular, writing. When I was around eight years old, I remember bursting with pride when my teacher at the time said I had a talent for telling stories. But, Dad saw no merit in writing. Writing had no practicality as a real job and I had to get a real job; so my writing was tolerated, humoured, but never encouraged or of any interest to him. I went on to try various vocations and jobs, and never achieved anything of note. I failed to provide my parents with a career or success that they could brag about to their friends.
I continued to write, I just stopped sharing it with my parents. Writing has always been the means by which I can most easily express myself. I struggle to express myself vocally when stressed or put on the spot, becoming practically mute when a bully, boss or boyfriend got angry at me and incapable of responding when I had, “Well, what do you have to say for yourself” barked at me. On the flip side, when I’m excited about something I talk loudly, babble incoherently, stammer and even slur my speech. But give me a pen and I can write an eight-page essay that will cut you to the quick or bring you to tears. I’m like a sea lion, clumsy and plodding on land but exceptionally agile in the water.
My biggest fear was that I would turn into my father so I worked very hard at looking at my own behaviour for any signs that I was becoming like him. If I spotted something in myself that reminded me of him then I would work out a way of eliminating that habit. And when, in my twenties I discovered Myers-Briggs personality testing and that my personality type – INFJ – is rare (only one percent of the population) but NORMAL I started to read ferociously about the psychology of personality, temperament and high sensitivity, and finally I started to heal my damaged self-worth.
I was further exonerated of my failure to be normal when later in life I received the diagnosis of a congenital chronic connective tissue disorder and associated complications that accounted for many of the symptoms I experienced as a child such as headaches, growing pains, poor motor skills and dizzy spells. As a result, I only got the necessary corrective surgery to relieve pressure on my brainstem in my mid-thirties instead of before my teens, which is when it’s usually done, because my symptoms had been continually dismissed by my childhood doctors as attention seeking, fibs and hypochondria. By the time I did get my surgery, the damage had been done and was irreversible.
Yet, though all I learned helped me understand myself better, it never helped me understand Dad or come to terms with his inexplicable and erratic behaviour.
Living with a problem adult
My father was high maintenance, a problem adult, exasperating and exhausting. From my perspective, he was a grown man and yet refused to act like one, throwing childish tantrums when he didn’t get his way or something annoyed him and seemed to have absolutely no regard of how his behaviour affected others or show any willingness to exercise self-control.
When I was in a bad mood, in pain or felt sick or sad, I would be scolded for expressing my feelings. I was told to get over it and not upset others with my problems. Yet when Dad was upset it was okay for him to whine and complain and act out. And Mum and I were expected to drop what we were doing to tend to him, give him comfort and sympathy, nurse him and calm him down even if all that had upset him was a stubbed toe. The double standard annoyed me immensely.
His temper was off the charts and always an over-the-top response, disproportionate to the irritation. He wouldn’t just get upset; he would scream and swear loudly, throw or smash things, slam doors and stomp about like a toddler having a tantrum. The slightest things would set him off – frustration at not being able to work something out, any noise he found irritating, dealing with ‘stupid’ people, spilling food on himself, air-conditioning that was too cold, having the sun or a bright light shining on him, not being able to find the ‘right’ parking space… It was frightening to experience as a child and I would hide in my room when he got like this. Later, I dreaded going anywhere with him. He ruined so many important events in my life – birthdays, school functions, graduation… my teenage best friend’s funeral. All because he refused to just suck it up and think about someone other than himself for a few hours, especially when I needed him to be strong for me. It made me feel a lot of bitterness towards him.
Though his temper was so violent, it was never directed at people. He never lost his temper or yelled at or hit me or Mum. He did hit me once, as toddler, but I don’t remember it. Mum said he hit me so hard that my backside had a hand-shaped bruise on it for weeks after. She said he was horrified by what he did and left discipline to her after that (this was still the time when smacking was okay), but I think it scarred me emotionally and made me terrified of making him angry and instilled in me a pathological need to seek his approval.
He had extremely polarised opinions on things, had no filter and would not keep his opinions to himself. If triggered he would go off on loud rants in public with no regard for how offensive or hurtful he could be.
If we didn’t like the same things he did, he would take it personally as if we were rejecting him and didn’t love him. As I got older, I started to see how he would use this to manipulate us into doing things his way. Mum threw away all her music records because he didn’t like her taste in music and I felt ashamed for betraying him by listening to pop music in secret.
Dad was socially clumsy, saying inappropriate things, sharing too much information, making rude comments about people and always spoke loudly, everywhere. Mum was forever poking him in the ribs to hush him and people would stare at us in shops and restaurants. Every outing with him was a source of embarrassment for me.
Mum refused to play board games with us because Dad had to win, even in games of chance. It wasn’t that he was competitive, but that if he didn’t win he would get angry, pout and sulk like a spoilt child.
My parents never showed physical affection. They never held hands, hugged, kissed or cuddled or sat next to each other. Mum said it was her British stiff-upper-lip show-no-emotion upbringing, but I think it’s that she found Dad’s awkward displays of affection as overwhelming as I did. I felt so uncomfortable by it that I never asked Dad for hugs or comforting and always went to Mum.
He was an extremely restless person and could not sit still for long. Visiting friends, going to the movies or school functions where he had to sit quietly for several hours were a nightmare. He would be constantly fidgeting, shifting about in his chair, playing with keys or other objects, tapping a finger or a foot, and making a commotion that would annoy other movie goers or parents at recitals.
Dad was obsessive about things he enjoyed. He loved music (at least music that was to his taste) and would insist on showing visitors his music system, CD collection and his keyboard. He never let anyone leave before playing them some new piece of music he was learning to play even though he played dreadfully and seemed oblivious to the looks of boredom and pained smiles that made Mum and I cringe with embarrassment.
Though Dad was always happy to help, he could not seem to help without taking over. If I asked for help with a project or constructing something he would take it away and do the whole thing himself, without including me, and then wonder why I wasn’t thankful and cried because I wanted to do the kitset gift I got, myself. Later this developed into him struggling with boundaries and interfering in my personal life. He’d go off behind my back and give a piece of his mind to anyone I mentioned had upset me, which only ever made things worse for me and made me extremely angry with him. And then I would be told off for hurting his feelings because he was just trying to help.
Once Dad decided he was right about something he would not back down, even if he was proved to be wrong. This caused a lot of conflict with people he worked with. He couldn’t admit his mistakes, couldn’t let things go and would become fixated on finding some way of disproving the evidence so that he could prove he’d been right all along. If he couldn’t then he would make excuses for why he had got it wrong, shifting blame to others, never taking responsibility. And he certainly wouldn’t apologise, but would expect an apology from others if they wronged him.
I lost respect for my mother as I got older. I saw her as weak and perpetuating the subservient female stereotype in the way she let Dad always have his way to keep the peace and gave up many of the things she enjoyed. I didn’t like the way she indulged his tantrums and childish behaviour. I saw her as enabling him and that they had a co-dependent relationship. For as much as Mum let Dad have his way, she also used him. She said that doing things for her made him happy and I felt that she took advantage of that. But it also meant she gave up a lot of her independence and became entirely reliant on him in the process. After he passed away she continued repeating the same routines and rituals that calmed Dad even though there was no longer any need for them.
Dealing with Dad was suffocating and overwhelming. I couldn’t cope with it, on top of trying to deal with my own issues. The only way I could get on with my own life was by distancing myself, and I grabbed the first opportunity I got to move to a different part of the country well away from my parents. I tried connecting with Dad so many times, tried talking with him about his issues, tried being more accommodating, but if felt like I was being pulled underwater by a drowning person. Eventually I had to let go and save myself.
The Good Doctor diagnosis
It’s been nearly nine years since my father passed away and two years since Mum passed, and though they are gone I have continued to struggle with feelings of resentment and bitterness. I wanted to let it go, but I just didn’t know how.
Then, over this past Christmas holiday, I started watching The Good Doctor – a TV drama series about a young surgeon with autism. Up until then, I didn’t know much about autism and like many people, my age and older, assumed that it was just a new term for cognitive and intellectual impairment.
The more I watched the show, the more similarities I started to see between myself and the main character, Dr Murphy: the difficulty with expression through speech, the way I feel when I get overloaded by sensory input, the same social awkwardness, the same sense of wonder and fascination with small details others miss like the shapes of clouds, the way he pauses to fully process all possible scenarios and outcomes before committing to a course of action. I even have similar quirky behaviours, like the very particular way I hang out my laundry and spread jam on toast. And FYI, hanging the toilet paper with the loose end over the top, away from the wall, IS the correct way.
I can even relate to his behaviour that clashes so much with ‘normal’ people – the raw unfiltered honesty, the integrity, the open and authentic approach to life with no hidden agenda, game-playing or posturing and the difficulty in understanding how other people can willfully lie, cheat, manipulate and be so fake without conscience or second thought.
In season four of the series he conducts an adult autism assessment test with a man in his sixties he suspects also has autism. The questions were so true of me that it made me curious and I did a test online. In fact, I did several to confirm, and they all said the same thing, I have autism.
I find it difficult to believe since I live a completely independent life and have few problems these days with self-regulation and social interactions. I have become so skilled at mimicking social conventions and hiding embarrassing behaviours, to make the people around me feel more comfortable, that I don’t even realise I’m doing it or how much effort it takes. But, looking back at my childhood and teens, I can see the signs were obvious, and now so much of my experience makes sense.
I understand why I find it so hard to connect with people, even those I have things in common with and why I find most socialising so unfulfilling. I want to talk about academic stuff, big stuff, stuff that matters, and find small talk so incredibly tedious. I experience the world so much more intensely than others, that I find most people limited, unimaginative and lacking curiosity – quite simply, boring. It’s like I experience the world in colour while everyone around me sees everything in black and white. I crave the company of the intellectuals, the visionaries and the free-thinkers – who coincidentally tend to be on the autism spectrum, which makes complete sense.
It explains why there are some things I just haven’t been able to master. Dress sense, fashion, style not only don’t interest me, they elude me and unless it’s a special occasion, I wear pretty much the same outfit every day of my life because it saves me the bother of expending energy thinking about something so trivial. And while I was able to learn how to drive a car, I’ve never had the confidence to get a driver’s license. I simply cannot cope with driving with other cars around me – the unpredictability of other drivers, the sensory overload of traffic and having to split my attention multiple ways makes me go into meltdown.
And I finally have a cause for the strange seizures I started getting as an adult that doctors can’t explain or find a pathology for. It makes perfect sense now why they only happen when I experience emotional or sensory overload. It’s exactly like a computer that crashes when it overheats or has too many things running at once and has to reboot. I hit an overload point and my system shuts down. Though I don’t lose consciousness, I can’t speak and can’t move. Then slowly as my operating system restarts and various systems come back online my speech returns, I regain movement of my head, arms and upper body and finally my legs.
I see now why, although I am a sensitive and emotional being, I can sometimes be insensitive and unfeeling. I have to consciously remember to consider how my words or actions may hurt others. And it’s why romantic relationships are always such a disaster for me. I love too committedly, too enthusiastically, and I’ve come to accept that I’m better off alone. I’m like a love alcoholic. One drink and I turn into a clingy blithering idiot, so it’s better for all that I simply don’t partake.
My father had autism
The more I read about autism the more things in my childhood made sense and then it hit me… Dad was autistic. This was why his behaviour was so erratic and uncontrollable. The fidgeting, the tantrums, the inability to tolerate discomfort of any sort, the social awkwardness and inappropriate remarks, the loud voice, the obsessive habits, the lack of consideration for others, the inability to compromise – it was all autism.
Suddenly all the resentment and hate was gone and instead I feel intensely sad for him, that he never understood why he was different and felt like the whole world was against him. It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t that he was stubborn and didn’t want to behave properly or take responsibility for his actions; it’s that in his own eyes his behaviour made perfect sense and he couldn’t understand why people got upset by it.
Instead of seeing him as a normal man with countless shortcomings, I now see him as an autistic man who made huge achievements despite his limitations.
I wish I could have discovered this sooner, long before he died. I wish I could have helped him heal from all the hardships he endured because of it.
My father’s early start in life was idyllic, the youngest of seven siblings born to loving and doting parents in central Africa. They had a coffee plantation in the Congo and lived in a brick house with no electricity and no plumbing with no one around for miles. There was little to cause Dad to go into overload in his early days and he spent his time exploring the countryside and playing in nature with his brothers and sisters.
Then tragedy hit when both his parents died within a year of each other and the children were orphaned, Dad was just seven years old. The children were divided up, the sisters sent to live with an aunt in Belgium while the boys were put sent into foster care with a family that were not nurturing and Dad was abused physically, mentally and emotionally by his foster father. It was also at this time that he started school and was bullied by his peers and treated cruelly by his teachers who saw him as undisciplined. After that it was abuse at the hands of his boss when he got an apprenticeship at the age of 14 and then a continuing cycle of bullying and betrayals by colleagues, bosses, friends, partners and family.
We believed much of his behaviour was explained by the trauma and abuse he experienced as a child and much of it was. It’s also why he struggled to learn self-regulation later in life because he took any criticism of his behaviour as bullying, as a hurtful personal attack.
Now that I know he was autistic, it breaks my heart that he was treated with so much cruelty. It wasn’t just that he was an unfortunate victim; it was that he was a soft target, an easy punching bag who couldn’t fight back.
I now see Mum differently too. She was so strong, loyal and never gave up on Dad. I’m so thankful that he found her. She saved his life and was essentially the full-time caregiver he needed. If she had left him, I don’t know how he would have survived. He would have found cooking, cleaning, household chores very frustrating. His temper and behaviour could easily have got him arrested for disorderly and offensive conduct if he hadn’t had Mum around to talk him down.
I wish my father could have been given the understanding, support and encouragement autistic children today get. He could have done so much more with his life, could have achieved remarkable things. He was brushed off as stupid so he never finished school or went to university, yet became a self-taught mechanical engineer, with a remarkable talent for problem-solving and thinking outside the box designing complex machines used in manufacturing. He had ideas that were ahead of their time and had come up with the concept of in-line skates decades before rollerblades took the world by storm in the ‘80s. Way back in the ‘70s, long before everyone was talking about global warming and dwindling natural resources he spent years trying to invent a perpetual motion machine to create unlimited clean energy, and years later he had an idea for a way to recycle our massive garbage dumps into usable resources. Yet sadly, despite his genius, he never excelled in his field, never saw his ideas come to anything because he was held back by his own self-doubts and the ridicule of bosses and colleagues who lacked the insight to see how visionary many of his ideas were.
What he might have achieved if we had just understood his needs better…
Making peace and the gift of a new future
I regret the way I pushed Dad away and kept him at a distance. It’s a guilt I carry, but at the same time, I have to forgive myself too. I did try, but I was the child. It was not my responsibility or burden to parent him. I did as much as I could, but I also had to live my own life.
At the same time, the more I learn about autism and hear the stories of other people with autism, the more I feel like I have been robbed of a part of my identity. If I had been given permission to be autistic, I could have embraced my differences and uniqueness and felt a sense of pride and community in the same way the deaf and LGBTQIA+ have their own culture, community and pride. I feel like I’ve missed out on all that. And although I didn’t know it, by denying my autism all my life, I now feel like a hypocrite by ‘coming out’ as autistic, like I don’t have the right to claim this label with pride when so many others see the diagnosis as a disability.
But, for me, learning I have autism feels extremely freeing. At last, I no longer have to feel guilt and shame at finding it so hard to compete in a world that favours the extroverted, the able-bodied, the neurotypical. At last, I have definitive proof that I do not have some mental illness, psychological issue, character flaw, personality defect or lack commitment to conforming to social norms. I am simply different, neurodiverse. I was born this way, just as I was born with Keratoconus, Arnold Chiari Malformation, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and allergy issues.
And though I have given up on finding love, maybe just maybe, I might actually stand a chance after all because with knowledge comes power. Now I can start any potential romantic relationship with full disclosure and weed out the time-wasters right from the start, with something like: “Hi, I have autism. If I talk too loudly, obsess or weird you out, please let me know so that I can self-adjust. Criticising me, admonishing me, or telling me I have psychological issues or mental illness is not only inaccurate, but hurtful and does not help. So if you’re going to be a jerk about it, you can piss off now because I don’t need to waste my time on yet another prejudiced, self-centred, closed-minded asshole.” Well, words to that effect, anyway. I’ll work on it. Right now I have a novel to finish.
Who knows, perhaps my writing will help someone find their missing piece of the puzzle the way The Good Doctor has helped me. I hope so. For even fiction has the power to change or save a life.
But most importantly, I can now remember my father with love and kindness, cherishing all the good times and all the things that made him the best Dad in the world.
I love you, Dad. I’m so incredibly proud of you.