Being a Dad on the Autism Spectrum
I’m Greg, an autistic dad self-diagnosed at age 31. I have twin three year olds, one of whom is autistic. I’m new to the autism community only in the sense that my son introduced my partner Meg and I to a world we didn’t know much about. Like many adults on the autism spectrum, I only became self-aware after observing my son’s unique behaviors over time, much of which struck me as oddly familiar. He can play contentedly by himself for long stretches of time without requiring social interaction. Not only can I do that, I desire it and often need it. I remember the desire well growing up. I’d rather sit alone in my room, door closed, playing my guitar or writing and listening to music than interacting with others. When I lived in an apartment with two roommates for my first year of college, I found myself mostly wanting to take the bus into downtown Providence, RI, or simply walk around the city by myself, always with headphones on, or go to book stores and read right off the shelf. I roamed everywhere I could and thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. That kind of freedom was preferable to interacting with two roommates who I could never fully relate to. It was not because I did not want to relate to them, but that I didn’t know how to. It didn’t help that I had no desire to drink and smoke weed like they did, constantly. The intricacies of social relationships remain a mystery to me. I’m content to “hang out,” which is often exhausting enough after a while, but relating to people on an emotional level feels beyond my abilities.
Some of these “problems” carry over into parenthood. The work of caring for my kids at home feels constantly overwhelming. This is no surprise as many of the most basic things of adulthood present to me as constantly overwhelming. I have no choice but to think about things before I ever get around to doing them. Instead of just brushing my teeth, I think about it anxiously first, resigning myself to defeat and just “getting it over with.” This sounds strange to those who do not experience life on the autism spectrum. Some things just have to be done and you simply do it, no thought required. Life is never that simple for us, however. Neurotypical adults will often admit that caring for their children is the hardest job they’ll ever do, and there is no reason to question them. I know the feeling, only I would submit that the difficulty can be amplified for those on the autism spectrum. My inability to multitask carries over into caring for my children, and it leaves me in a state of ceaseless stress. I struggle mightily to process two auditory sources at once, and I have two children the same age, one autistic himself. When I was in college, I was unable to take notes in any of my classes. I cannot simultaneously put to paper what a professor is speaking. Any attempt at doing so means I do not hear information while writing, or inevitably forget information in the process of trying to store it all in my head. This was particularly difficult in math classes like Algebra, where writing problems down on paper meant I lost the verbal instructions from the professor and immediately fell behind my classmates. In short, multitasking is difficult at best, and multitasking is a requirement of caring for two children at once.
I’m further concerned for my children over my inability to show empathy with them. There is no question that I feel empathy, but I cannot exhibit it intuitively like my partner can. It surprises me little that my children seek out their mother over me for any kind of emotional support. I can come across as cold, indifferent, robotic even, and yet I don’t ever mean to nor desire to. Part of enjoying life with my family involves being able to share joy with them. And while I’m comfortable doing this one on one with my children or with my wife, I struggle terribly to visibly share joy with all. I have been this way my entire life, uncomfortable sharing joyful moments with my family. I will never forget when my dad asked me why I refused to smile while on a ride at a fair. I was in elementary school at the time, and I did not know why it was so uncomfortable for me to smile and show joy. I am not a robot. I feel emotion. I don’t know how to show it and when I do it is excruciatingly uncomfortable and awkward. All of these behavioral issues pose problems for me and how I relate to my children. I find myself awkwardly averting eye contact from my own children at times, mostly my non-spectrum son who has a personality seriously at odds with my extreme introvertedness. Despite my best efforts, and being fully aware of how much I want my kids to understand my difficulties even at this early age, I feel chronically inadequate and unable to meet their needs. But feeling inadequate is something I’ve felt my whole life. I’ve been taking antidepressants for over a decade to cope with mental illness that I developed early on. I wish I could be the “cool” dad for my kids. The dad who can just get down and play with seemingly little effort and talk to my kids in an age appropriate way. Instead, I have to think first about how to approach my kids in playing with them. I talk with them in a non-age appropriate way because I struggle to relate to all youngsters and I cannot easily switch off my monotone. I’m the least animated person my kids will likely meet. I wear the same grey and blue clothing all the time and just barely maintain a rudimentary understanding of fashion sense. Being a dad is hard for anyone. Being a dad on the autism spectrum provides unique challenges that cannot be easily overcome. While my Asperger’s Syndrome really does provide challenges in and of itself, being a dad with it can feel truly disabling. I’m learning to accept these challenges and I hope my children will learn to love me for who I am.