Managing Relationships: Growing Up with a Father on the Autistic Spectrum

Louise shares how her father's autism affected her relationship with him, but how knowledge and a better understanding has helped them both move forward.

As a young child, I was unaware that my Dad was on the autistic spectrum, and as a teenager I found it incredibly frustrating (mainly through a lack of understanding on my part). Now, as an adult, I can appreciate his character traits and support him and his decisions, however unorthodox they may seem to others.

As a child, I was extremely lucky to grow up in a community-spirited village with a wide circle of family friends around us, as well as my three other siblings. My mother chose to be a stay-at-home parent and she was exceptionally outgoing and eccentric. By contrast, my father was a calm, steady man who was always working. To us, it didn't seem unnatural that he would choose to work instead of coming on family holidays, and as he often worked late into the evenings, he was rarely a part of family dinner times. He successfully managed his own business and ensured we never went without financially, so in his own way, we could see that he cared. It's clear now that his dedication to his work was in his nature, as those on the autistic spectrum typically feel more comfortable sticking to a routine.

Point of Realisation

It was as a young teenager that I began to realise my dad wasn't as involved in my life as many of my friends' fathers were in theirs. It was the dads of friends that taught me to ride a bike and to swim and would pick my friends and me up from parties. Still, that was just who he was, and we accepted that he was simply always busy with work. 

It wasn't until my later teenage years when my mother fell ill and passed away that his lack of empathy and reduced ability to handle complex emotions became truly apparent. In the years that followed, our relationship became stilted, distant and to be perfectly honest, cold. His actions, or rather, lack of them, caused me and my siblings to feel lost, alone and unsupported. The expectation was for him to hold out his arms and become a figure of comfort - what we didn't realise at the time was that his autism made him unable to do so. He shut down, a typical autistic response to being overwhelmed, as his mind had passed the point of being able to interpret what was going on around him.

Moving Forward

Now, a decade later, through years of research, self-reflection and communication with my dad, we have a healthy and supportive relationship. In my childhood, I think it's fair to say I didn't really know him, and it wasn't until my mother passed away that he became present enough for me to be able to find out who he actually is. I now see that he was excellent at mirroring my mother's sociable behaviours, and in doing so was able to disguise his social awkwardness fairly successfully. When she died, he didn't just need to handle the loss of his wife, but he was faced with parenting four grieving children - a difficult task for any parent, but particularly if you're ill-equipped at handling social interactions of any nature. As you can imagine, it was a difficult time for all of us.

In the years that have passed, my siblings and I have accepted that he will never be a 'soft and fuzzy' parent, but that's okay. He is reliable, steady and supportive in his own way. Rather than ask if I'm happy and healthy, he'll ask about the health of my bank balance. He won't say, 'I love you', but he'll thank me for my call, and when visiting, a hug will almost always be replaced with a handshake. I know that we can readily talk about his specific interests or hobbies, such as politics, astronomy and property investment, but we would steer clear of anything remotely emotional or relating to relationships of any kind.

Full Circle

In my experience, during the early 90s and 00s, autism wasn't as readily talked about or nearly as widely recognised as it is now. Had I have been more aware of it, my relationship with my dad might not have suffered as much. 

Thankfully, one of his more endearing character quirks is that he will never hold a grudge: to him it's always been what's done is done and there's little point dwelling on it. If you think about it like that, in a beautiful circle of events - whilst his autism could be attributed to so many challenges in our personal relationship, it's the very thing that has enabled our relationship to recover.

For more information on autism and how you can support an autistic loved one, there are a number of great resources online.