Actually, the question should read: “are my parents autistic?” because, well, they’re still alive and well. But I worded the title question the way I did because in order to answer it, I have to sit back and think back….way back. Because although my parents and I see each other at least every few weeks, the contact is brief, and usually within the context of professional life (and the office environment alters their behavior somewhat), since the reason for the encounter is their seeking treatment at our office for their post-car-wreck injuries. So to conjure up a more accurate picture, I have to think back to my childhood home life. But to clarify, yes, they’re very much alive. 🙂
In fact, they’re more Alive than they’ve been in a long time. Although retired for almost five years now, they’ve discovered new facets of themselves, followed a divergent path, and found their joy-pot of gold at the end of their personal rainbow.
My mother is into crafts. First it was crocheting, later it was knitting, and recently it has become sewing and embroidery work. She has three separate machines: one which does only sewing, one that does only embroidery, and one that can do both. She often has more than one machine running at once. She scours deep crevasses for patterns and ideas, and then she takes them and runs with them, combining colors and designs in every way imaginable. Anyone can imagine that she has amassed quite the collection. Each individual finished product is stored in its own Ziploc bag, and these bags of individual items are then categorized and organized into translucent plastic bins. She awards herself subconscious bonus points if she labels them–the little bags and the bins.
She is content to work alone and nurture her growing collections. She is self-motivated and happiest without social demand. One problem: she is running out of available storage space.
Part of me had been concerned in recent years that a darker, more compulsive force was at work, egging her on, forcing her to keep going, long beyond the point of saturation, because of her own PTSD (the car-wreck part). Part of me had been convinced that she wasn’t doing this for enjoyment; she was doing it to run. To stay ahead of the dark, yawning cave of anxiety, swarming with memories and pain. I figured that she subconsciously figured that if she could keep running, it would stay behind her. And if she ran fast enough, it couldn’t catch up.
Now, I have begun to rethink that theory….
A clincher in my curiosity about whether or not I actually fell on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum after all, involved my observations of a semi-distant maternal relative, and how this lovely relative and I shared the semi-annoying, semi-endearing attraction to and memory of dates. It seems as though we both scorch specific dates into our heads, like branding a ranch logo onto a cow’s hindquarters. It’s there forever, anchoring us, keeping life events straight and orderly in the filing cabinets of our minds, leaving no question and no room for error or ambiguity.
This lovely distant relative’s parents didn’t know what she “had”, but they knew she was different, in the way she talked and thought, and they knew she needed ongoing support; in her early 40s, she lives about a mile down the road from them, working almost full-time–and deriving plenty of satisfaction–at a job that would seem agonizingly boring and mundane to the neurotypical world. My kinship and deeper understanding of her is part of what jumpstarted my own discovery process almost a year ago.
It was in watching and thinking about her that I had worked down the family chain to come to my own realization. Then, I began to wonder if I should start working up the family chain to examine my mom through a mental magnifying glass. To do that, one must consider a lengthy history.
My mom, too, had always been “different”. She hadn’t had any of her cousin’s (my distant relative’s) overt idiosyncrasies; hers were more subtle. After all, she had wanted to remain more subtle. It would take until she reached high school before she made her first “real” friends, and it was “only” one or two at a time at that. She had been–and would remain–mostly a self-described bookworm, and a class-described “nerd”. She, too, was branded an outcast, laughed at, and made fun of. She, too, felt different from her family and wanted little-to-nothing to do with them.
She had always been extra-sensitive and extremely intuitive. You can’t put anything past my mother. Forget lying or sneaking around; she knows the truth. She can either sense it from you immediately, or if you got lucky and managed to slip a fast one under her nose, consider yourself on borrowed time, because she’ll have a dream about it, pay attention to the dream and its potential meaning, and ask you a pointed question when you least expect it. It could be days or weeks after you thought you were in the clear and forgot about it, but it’ll happen.
She has always looked at events, people, places, etc, from an unconventional point of view. And she wasn’t afraid to be open with me about that. She raised me with concepts like spirituality, but not the kind that fits into a box under an already-established denominational name; she delicately wove seemingly-clashing concepts like karma, astrology, and reincarnation into a shimmering philosophical tapestry. Like so many of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, she marched to the beat of her own drum, and she did so before it was cool, and in ways that weren’t yet considered cool.
She was also the one who understood me most, right out the gate. And I was/am an example of a quintessential Aspie, if, of course, there is a such thing. I’m wondering if our strong mutual connection and unspoken understanding were a case of “it takes one to know one”.
These days, she has lost touch with most of her friends from previous phases of life. Those life phases are a world away. Her current life wouldn’t be recognizable to the people from her past anyway. She enters her Zone and contentedly stays there, at a cruising altitude, for the entire day, happiest to do her own thing. Despite the fact that my parents are retired, their marriage is intact, and they hardly ever leave the house, they also hardly ever see each other.
Because at their core, they’re two peas in a pod.
My father spends his days exactly the same way. The difference is merely in the surface details, which are simply semantics anyway. He spends his days hunched over his scroll saw, making fine cuts in sheets of wood that evolve into elaborate and exquisite designs that scream detail, beauty, and perfection. He accepts nothing less from himself (or from his offspring, which had proven difficult and problematic in previous decades, but is relatively smoothed over now). His patience with his work is now endless, and he, too, has accumulated an entire showcase of productions, of which he, too, has created many different variations of handiwork under a handful of similar themes. One with glitter, one without. One made of the lighter wood, one made of the darker wood. One with clear lacquer, one without.
He, too, has found his joy, his new purpose in life, a fresh chapter of his journey, and he, too, prefers to work in utmost solitude. He, too, zeroes in with the focus of a laser beam and loses all track of time and physiological need. Time wrinkles up. Hours go by, without his permission, nor his awareness.
His working years involved a unique path that was half-machinist, half-gypsy. We lived a conventional life during the school year while my father built, cleaned, tweaked, tested, and tweaked some more his machinistic inventions during the day. Then, one day at the beginning of every summer, the bottom on that conventional life dropped out and fell away, as we embarked on the other half of a double life as nomadic drifters for a significant portion of each year, while the rubber met the road: it was time for my father’s machines to perform and generate the funding with which we would sustain ourselves for the rest of the year.
To put it mildly for the cheap seats, my parents never had “typical” 9-to-5 jobs at any point in my entire life. This unconventional (double-)lifestyle is all I’ve ever known.
My father had plenty of finely-tuned social skills, no doubt hard-ground into him over the course of years and years of parental strictness. When my parents were young, he even explained to my mother the importance of eye contact, a smile, and a firm and trustworthy handshake. But although he was a talented, smooth schmoozer who had never met a stranger, and could turn any stranger into a lifelong trusted acquaintance within a single conversation, he had few “regular” friends on the non-traveling/off-season front. He could secure any business deal with his word alone, and he had quite the fine, solid reputation, and he could even shoot the breeze with the neighbors outside in the front yard(s) for hours, but he had few personal friends. He was a likeable guy with a ready laugh, but he hardly ever had anything written on a social calendar. My parents rarely went out with anyone or had anyone over to our house.
My dad has an inner sensitivity that he keeps more closely guarded than a fortress. His heart is an underground vault that runs for miles, but has a only a tiny proverbial trap-door on the surface, one that doesn’t look like anything special on the outside, one that might never warrant a second thought–or even an initial one. But its capacity is overwhelming, especially for him. He doesn’t quite know what to do with emotions that complex. He doesn’t quite know how to handle them. Sometimes, those emotional tsunamis steal the driver’s seat and start controlling everything else. He has a difficult time accepting reality because his desires for his ideals are so strong. He thinks in black and white; he knows how the world ought to be, and he can’t stand the fact that it doesn’t run that way. His mind-wheels are always spinning, and his heart is always aching.
Although it was my mom who understood me first and best, it was my dad to whom she compared me the most. Even when I couldn’t see–or tolerate the resemblance–she could, and did.
At the end of the day, my parents finally reconvene, excitedly showing each other their creations for the day in lovely, bubbly childlike fashion, which I find incredibly special.
When I finally stumbled upon my Asperger’s/autistic code-key-to-life and (instantly) began researching, it didn’t take me long to learn that This Spectrum Stuff Runs In Families. Academic factoids and real-life anecdotes thickly dotted the Google landscape. Within a short time, I “came out” as an Aspie/autistic person to my mom (remember the part about “don’t bother trying to slip anything past her; she’ll know?”) I began to list off all of the traits about myself that I had discovered were actually shared–very widely–among and throughout the Asperger’s/autistic community. (“Look ma! It’s not just me! Yay!!”)
My mom’s mind-wheels began to turn in an unexpected way: “that sounds like your sister, too.” And of course, to make a long chapter of the story short, as I researched and learned more, I realize now, that my sister is almost assuredly on the spectrum–to the point where I feel comfortable making an affirmative statement that she is.
So, wait a minute – how do two parents who seem neurotypical have two children who are almost assuredly on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum?
Maybe the answer is because they may not be so neurotypical after all. Maybe one or both of them is somewhere on the spectrum.
Part of me thinks this is plausible. After all, my sister and I inherited their characteristics, and that would also include personality characteristics; many more of these are carried in on genetics than had previously been realized. The one area of agreement I witness on all “sides” or facets of the subject of Asperger’s/autism is that it’s highly heritable.
The other part of me thinks that although they each have a higher number of Asperger’s/autism spectrum-related traits than average, that doesn’t necessarily put them on the spectrum. The intuitive, sensing part of me knows that although I’ve inherited a lot of traits from each, I’ve always felt–and even described–a “third element”, a set of characteristics that I didn’t inherit or learn from them in any way, a set of attributes all my own that didn’t seem to have a traceable source.
The big question–do they meet the criteria?–has never been answered, because they’ve never gone for evaluation, and probably wouldn’t choose to. So the truth may forever remain a mystery. Or maybe it won’t; maybe upon mounting consideration across time, we’ll be able to make a self-assessment “ruling” once and for all.
Or maybe that’s not so important. There are bright and dark sides to labels. There are pros and cons to making the Asperger’s/autism discovery at any–and every–stage of life. It might not matter all that much in the long run. My parents are still my parents; they are who they are and we have what we have…
…and we have each other, which is awesome whether they’re on the spectrum or not.
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(Image Credit: yuumei)