“You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts.” — Charles Chaplin
Every child has needs. Children need food and shelter as much as they need love and affection. Without the former, we cannot grow. Without the latter, we cannot live. But emotionally immature parents suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) are having a great difficulty understanding their children’s needs. It doesn’t occur to them that crying children may be hungry, lonely, in need of a loving touch, or may be signaling physical pain. They think such children are just being willfully disobedient. To them, children are things.
Psychologists describe people with ASD as having “lack of empathy, poor self-awareness, self-centredness, poor reciprocation of emotion, poor ability to maintain emotional relationships, anxiety and anger outbursts”. Considering this description, some professionals say narcissistic personality disorder also belongs on the autism spectrum. I support the view that autism and narcissism are closely related.
We sometimes hear of normal parents struggling to raise their autistic child. Society understands their difficult situation. But normal children of autistic parents cannot simply ask for help, because they know no other reality. What happens to such children if absolutely no one can assure there is nothing wrong with them, but with their emotionally dysfunctional parents? Such children grow up to become adults convincing themselves they are too flawed to deserve attention. They come to believe they are too unworthy to be loved. And they blame themselves.
FAAAS, an organization supporting Families of Adults Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, mentions there is an official term for people tied up in such destructive relationships: Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS). It afflicts “individuals who undergo chronic, repetitive psychological trauma within the context of an intimate relationship.” This especially holds true for normal or neurotypical (NT) children raised by machine-minded parents. Those children cannot simply break up the relationship with their dysfunctional parents, because they still depend on their parents for their survival.
A large body of scientific literature on autism deals with autistic children and their normal parents, but researchers tend to avoid the topic of autistic parents altogether. Psychologist Mark Hutten notes, “A great deal more research is still needed, especially around parenting, and more so of parenting young kids.” The bias poses a major problem. While parents of autistic children can find help in books titled The Autism Parents’ Guide To Reclaiming Your Life, even adult children of autistic parents can only dream of reclaiming theirs. Needless to say, young children and teenagers are on their own.
Parents suffering from high-functioning autism, or Asperger Syndrome (AS), can hold regular, even prestigious jobs, such as architects or neurosurgeons. They manage their households reasonably well, but they shut themselves off socially. FAAAS states what damage AS parents cause to their children:
“Family members of individuals who have [Asperger Syndrome] generally suffer ongoing psychological trauma. The damage is insidious [and] may continue for decades. If professionals fail to recognize damage produced by chronic, intimate exposure of a neurotypical individual to a family member with an autism spectrum disorder, the lack of validation creates extreme internal conflict, moral distress, loss of self-esteem, frustration, depression, and/or other symptoms …”
For clarification, it is not the case that autistic parents are ‘bad’. First and foremost because their condition is not their fault. Not all autistic people act in a bad way either. Some might say Indiana Jones’s father in The Last Crusade, played by Sean Connery, displays certain autistic behaviors. We find his character highly comical, but the film also shows the stress Jones senior’s behavior puts on the more flexible Jones junior.
The question of who to blame is not the right question. But it cannot be denied that the debilitating behaviors of AS parents both inhibit and outright damage the psychological development of their NT children. In the following sections, I will discuss what it’s like growing up with autistic parents; provide an overview of autistic behaviors that hurt their loved ones; and describe the effects of emotional neglect.
I hope this article brings some closure to those in need.
I. Growing up Blaming Yourself
When I was about six or seven years of age, in a fit of rage over not obeying her strict commands, my mother yanked me down the stairs by my shirt. I fell to the ground backwards and head first, the stone floor knocking me out. She hadn’t intended to hurt me. It was an accident. But when I came by, she hadn’t brought me to the hospital. She hadn’t called for a doctor. She had laid me on the living room sofa, and waited.
The following days, I complained heavily about an incessant, stabbing pain in my left arm. Unable to move it, I kept my arm pressed tightly against my chest. But no matter what I said, no matter how I argued, my mother dismissed my complaints as made-up. She would not examine me physically. Eventually, I gave up complaining and accepted this new reality that I would no longer be able to use my left arm. After all, visually, I looked alright.
It wasn’t until a neighbor had come over for a cup of coffee several days later that I succeeded in drawing attention to my medical emergency. Under peer pressure from our neighbor, my mother finally had to inspect me — the collarbone in my left shoulder had completely snapped. She reluctantly took me to the emergency room, but only after rehearsing the lie she instructed me to tell the doctor about what had happened.
Nearly thirty years later, I now know my mother suffers from an autism-spectrum disorder. In her mind, children are programmable machines. A crying child is just being willfully disobedient — always. Children deviating from her routinized instructions are malfunctioning things. But as a child, I could not possibly know the reason why my mother treated me so roughly, without compassion or affection. I did not know why she so stubbornly dismissed my real needs, even in case of a broken shoulder.
My mother fed her children well, bathed them and clothed them, but she never once offered a kind ‘hello’ upon our return from school. She dealt with her young boys in militaristic language, “Sit! Go upstairs! Empty your plate! Go to school! Put on your shoes!” Humanity was never a part of her vocabulary.
Growing up with autistic parents undoubtedly leaves a deep cut in one’s soul. As children, we depend on our parents for our care, even if we receive very little of it. In a rare 2008 article on children of AS parents, writer Jody Smith succinctly summarizes what children of autistic parents experience:
“Children assume, and internalize, that there is something wrong with them, that it is somehow their fault when their parents can’t show them love and affection in non-verbal ways they can understand. … Many offspring of [AS parents] are dogged throughout their lives with depression and low self-worth.”
AS parents are unable to express what love they may feel for their children. Consequentially, as a child, teenager and young adult I suffered greatly. For nearly three decades, I believed my own inability to live up to my parents’ impossibly rigid standards had forever barred me from receiving their emotional recognition. Their autistic behaviors convinced me that I had to be an inferior human being. As a teenager, I would even avoid looking at myself in the mirror, out of fear of seeing the monster I thought I was — a hunch-backed Nostradamus, condemned to live a life of invisibility.
“I’m no psychologist, but I’d say it stands to reason that if someone grows up thinking that her mother is unable to show her any love because she’s too flawed to warrant maternal affection, that person is going to have some ‘issues’.” — Anonymous
Five Stages of Awareness
In retrospect, my thinking about myself and the world around me passed through five stages of differing awareness, ultimately leading to the salvation I struggled so hard to find.
At first, young children have no other choice but to think of their dysfunctional parents as good parents. Our parents’ verbal and non-verbal communication will influence greatly what we think of the world and ourselves later in life. Through their interactions with us, they communicate us our self-worth. If they reassure us that they love us often, we must be good. If they neglect our needs or maltreat us, we must not be good enough. But if such neglect lasts our entire childhood, it must be because we are bad. This is what children of autistic parents experience.
As a teenager, I felt I was a piece of furniture, unworthy of my parents’ attention. My low self-esteem began to express itself in bouts of severe depressions to the point of having thoughts of suicide. If there was nothing I could do to earn my autistic parents’ love, and my existence was such a burden to them, suicide became a way to relieve both myself and my parents of my unworthy existence. As an eight-year-old I started fantasizing about running away from home. I began having thoughts of suicide as early as age ten. I would attempt to commit suicide half a dozen times. Yet my autistic parents were unable to show they cared, even if they did. There was no way of telling.
In my twenties, my thinking about myself transitioned into a third phase. By now, I had fully internalized my parents’ autistic behaviors, despite not being autistic myself (tests show). I applied those behaviors as rigidly as I could, at the expense of my suppressed humanity. I became a workaholic and routinely repressed my emotional needs. It completely ruined my social life. I had been brought up an emotionless soldier, ready to fight the war that never came. Although the image I held of myself was completely false, I had no way of knowing. How was I supposed to become aware of that fact if every lie and every truth I had ever heard blocked the path to getting to know my true self?
I had had a suspicion. On June 13th, 2002, at age 22, I wrote the following line in a computer diary:
“TRUTH FOUND. LIFE IS MEANINGLESS. NOW WHAT? FORGET ABOUT THE TRUTH.”
The truth I had found, was the direct link between the lack of direction in my life and the true cause that lay in my early childhood. I further wrote that I felt “psychologically broken”, but the truth that I had been a victim of emotionally distant parents was still unbearable to me. Moreover, at that time I didn’t even know anything about autism or Asperger Syndrome. I assumed my parents were normal people who simply hated me for being so flawed. I was a failure, and to save myself, I chose to forget about the truth again. It would take me another decade before confronting the past a second time. Meanwhile, life just slipped through my fingers.
Several weeks before my 28th birthday, my mental blockades caused an emotional breakdown. That evening, I found myself alone in my apartment, aimlessly staring into space. As if having to fight off an unknown threat, I strangely had my fists ready. My body trembling, with tears running down my cheeks, for the first time in my life I found the courage to ask myself aloud, “Am I not a good person too? Don’t I also deserve to be loved?” I answered my own questions affirmatively. But why then, with such overwhelming force, did the feeling overwhelm me that I was born bad and did not deserve to be loved?
Still I would excuse my parents for anything they might have done wrong. My first response was to find the fault in myself. I went looking for answers in various psycho-therapeutic literature, in search of a label to attach to myself. Maybe if I was crazy, I could forgive my parents for not having been able to love me.
But after so many years of trying to come to terms with my low self-worth, I snapped. In my early thirties, I began to face the fact that it could never have been just me. There had to be something wrong with my parents too. Slowly, I began to release a lifetime of pent-up anger I had felt towards my parents, but that I had suppressed. As a result, I completely disconnected from them and only communicated with them in a mechanical way via email — the same way they had preferred to communicate with me for all those years. As my anger grew, I began to wonder whether my parents had perhaps brought me into this world merely to torture me psychologically for the sake of their self-aggrandizing enjoyment?
Then, at long last, I found salvation. At age thirty-five I stumbled upon a website where other children of autistic parents had shared their many stories, ASpar. I immediately recognized the many quirky yet destructive parental behaviors that had dominated throughout my childhood. I instantly recognized both of my parents. They unmistakably suffer a form of high-functioning autism. I never knew. Finally, I understood that I had never been such a flawed creature that I wouldn’t have deserved my parents’ love, but that I too was a human being.
I also learned that it’s not the case that my parents don’t love me, or that they don’t care. They do. It’s because of their autism that they just can never show it. But the emotional neglect typical of such parents with autism scars their children for life. Autistic parents cause real and lasting damage to their child’s personal development that cannot be healed with acts of “forgiveness and understanding”.
“One very striking result of growing up with [Asperger parents] is that children develop the sense of psychological invisibility. They feel ignored, unappreciated and unloved, because their context-blind [autistic family] is so poor at emphatic reciprocity.” — Kathy Marshack
II. Behaviors of Autistic Parents
In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007) by Tony Attwood, he writes:
“The person with Asperger’s syndrome usually needs reassurance but may rarely reassure family members, has little interest in events of emotional significance to others, and can often criticize but rarely compliment. The emotional atmosphere can be affected by negativism, causing tension and dampening the enthusiasm of others. The family are all too aware of quick mood changes, especially sudden rage, and try not to antagonize the person due to fear of the intense emotional reaction.”
Autism is a lifelong disability that impairs people’s ability to function socially, inhibiting the expression of feeling and emotion, insofar they experience any. Scientists relate autism to mind blindness, which is explained here. Although autistic parents most definitely function as human beings, outwardly they tend to think and act like machines. They assume that people around them know the same things they know, and thus ‘forget’ to communicate their inner feelings and motives. They show highly rigid and routinized behaviors, and can be aggressively resistant to change.
In this section, I will discuss several of Asperger Syndrome parents’ behaviors that harm their children. In addition to personal anecdotes, I also cite stories collected by the ASpar organization for children of autistic parents, founded by sociologist Judy Singer. Singer was the professional who coined ‘neurodiversity’ in an attempt to change the narrative on neurological disorders. Those suffering from autism can be perfectly oblivious to their condition. They may even consider themselves ‘normal’ — and in a paranoid manner accuse the whole world of conspiring against them.
An Australian organization for people with autism notes:
“Parents with [autism-spectrum disorder] ASD frequently experience significant difficulties in understanding their children’s expectations. They may show a lack of interest in events of emotional significance to other family members. [They] may impose inflexible routines and strict expectations on their children. They may be quick to criticize and slow to reassure. [They] may spend an unusual amount of time alone and be intolerant of noise and intrusions.”
When I was a young boy, my father was frequently so absorbed by watching television that he could not stand the sounds his four young sons made when they played in the living room. The slightest infraction would set off his rage. Still in the phase of learning to formulate full sentences, my father would hover over us and yell, “Those sounds coming from your mouths, you are not allowed to make them!” Even my mother became the target of his anger. Opening and closing kitchen cabinets could set him off in a rage. I grew up with an angry gorilla living in our house.
People were things to my father, and if we caused unpleasant noises, we were malfunctioning. He would yell at us in the same manner frustrated computer workers might sometimes yell at a malfunctioning computer. He would order his children to go and play in the cold garage, but even the dull sound of our feet stumbling on the floor would annoy him. Effectively, we had to sit still, as if living furniture.
It is no wonder then, that as a young adult, I would always find it very difficult to speak up in groups of people. For the first nineteen years of my life, my parents had conditioned me to remain silent. Not having had permission to speak severely damaged my social life, my self-esteem, my psychological well-being, and consequently my will to live.
“Asperger parents … have very high moral and ethical standards and the family is expected to live up to these standards, ….” — Ailin Quinlan
Keeping up Appearances
AS parents spend a great deal of effort trying to keep up appearances. They are minimally aware of their own dysfunctional behaviors, yet they don’t want the outside world to know anything about it. They think public images are to be put together rationally. Their inability to evolve their own characters in order to adapt to the rest of society forces them to try to ‘change’ society’s views of them through lies and deceit. Lying thus becomes their only means of polishing their social status:
“… reality and truth are relative concepts — my parents openly lie about the most trivial things and for years I thought I must have a ‘bad memory’ because I couldn’t seem to keep straight what the current ‘reality’ was. It was not until I was dating my husband … that I realized that they had routinely lied all my life!” — Lisa
From experience, I would say autistic people think they can rewrite reality with their own thoughts. When my dad’s transporter van broke down beyond repair, he told everyone he had sold it off for money’s sake. I was there with him when it happened. The truth was the van had broken down because of his own faulty repairs and his stubborn refusal to leave it to a car mechanic. Perhaps he felt to cover up his incompetence by telling a convenient lie. While normal people sometimes may choose to lie, my father would lie systematically, to everyone, and without shame.
Children in such households quickly learn of two realities: the outside world, where social status matters more than truth, and the utterly dysfunctional world enclosed by the walls of their home. Information from the outside world can come in, albeit filtered, but the truth may never come out. One victim of autistic parents, Rona, writes, “Before we went out anywhere, [they] would make me rehearse the elaborate lies we would tell to others about our domestic misery. Keeping up the front was all important.”
My father, a graduated architect, had been unemployed since his mid forties due to psychosomatic stresses, for which he since received disability benefits. Doctors had suspected something was clearly wrong with him, but from then on he would pretend to be a self-employed architect running his own company. He had successfully convinced his own children, their friends and their friends’ parents. Twenty years later, I had to explain to my younger brothers their dad had been officially unemployed all those years, and that he had been living off his father’s inheritance. They were stupefied and at first refused to accept it.
My mother enjoyed lying to her children as well. When we were young, she had led us to believe she was a medical doctor, working as a surgeon. In reality, she was working as a nurse. She had never studied medicine. She even claimed to have a very high IQ. But basically, our mother bullshitted her unsuspecting children into believing we had a supermom, simply because she could. When, as teenagers, we find out about her fraud, she first responded with anger and aggression, then ignored the matter as if nothing had happened.
Because my parents’ deceit worked so well on their children, they relentlessly applied it in every aspect of their lives, thus constructing a wholly false image of themselves, their jobs and even of their children’s careers. Moreover, they expected us to help them broadcast their narcissistic version of reality to the outside world. On rare occasion, I still meet old acquaintances asking me how well my father’s company is doing — but he never had one.
“My mother was busy keeping up a front, blaming me for my father’s behavior.” — Caroline
People on the autism spectrum have difficulty relating to other people. They find it hard to interpret facial expressions. For example, when talking to people, they can’t tell whether the other person is either genuinely interested in what they have to say, or just plain bored. Neither do they understand the purpose of casual conversation, compliments or reassurances. On rare occasion, my father would pat me on the back with a stick — so he didn’t have to get up. Their idea of communication is a one-way street, poring out quantities of information:
“My father …. will launch into long discourses at the dinner table … which the rest of the family must ‘sit through’ in its entirety or he will either fly into a rage or sulk.” — Lisa
“[My father] tells the same stories over and over and over as if they were new each time … He cannot comprehend that a conversation is two-way, involving both parties. … We were often ‘held captive’ by his lectures on any and everything.” — River
On day, my father decided to lecture me on Darwin’s theory of evolution when I was about eight years old. It was very interesting and I tried to listen as patiently as I could. But after stretching my patience, I sneaked out unnoticed and left him there talking to himself. It took him fifteen minutes to notice I was gone — he never looked at my face, as he was too absorbed by his story. Thirty-five years on, I still never have been able to hold a normal conversation with my mom or dad.
My father enjoyed his long monologues, choosing from a very limited range of topics. Especially during family dinners, he would burst into speeches on our family history. On a content level, however, these conversations were meaningless to us. We needed him to ask how well our lives were doing, or how our life choices had turned out. But he never asked, and certainly not out of genuine interest. Besides, interrupting him would set him off like cutting the wrong wire of a ticking time-bomb. He would aggressively yell, “LET ME FINISH!” and repeatedly stress his right to free speech — or rather our duty to listen. It would never occur to him he was holding his family hostage.
“My dad would rant and rave about nothing, never talking to but talking at all of us. He was into ridicule and perpetual fault finding …” — Caroline
AS persons tend to see a deliberate actor behind every act of chance. In their worldview, everything is logical and rational. Everything that occurs therefore must have a reason. This is why they regard all children’s playful behavior as willful disobedience. But that view of reality also makes AS persons highly prone to developing paranoia. Of course, normal people sometimes also feel as if the world had turned against them, but my father actually believed it— all of the time. River shares:
“[My father] is prone to imaginative paranoia. For example, he spent the night at a hotel room once with a colleague and was convinced that the blinking red light from the smoke detector was actually a camera watching him.”
Some of my dad’s paranoia was mildly entertaining, for example his belief that the US government had engineered HIV/AIDS in a laboratory in order to control the African population. Other paranoia was less so. One of our neighbors, a former police officer, supposedly had installed an infra-red camera to see through our walls. Whenever my dad exited the home through the front door, and the neighbor happened to greet him, my dad believed he had been spied on.
“My father was also extremely paranoid, always thinking that people were out to screw him in one way or another.” — Anthony
Rigid, Routinized and Unemphatic Behavior
To cope with an unpredictable world they cannot control, autistic people resort to highly rigid and routinized behaviors. But since no script can ever be applied perfectly to all situations, they experience great stress. It never occurs to them to simply let go of scripts and flexibly deal with situations as they come and go. Julie writes:
“My father … wishes people were more like computers, …, and whenever I displayed [normal behavior], I was punished, I think because he viewed me as a machine that was malfunctioning, …”
On family trips, my father would insist he park the car in the ‘perfect’ spot, e.g. the single spot closest to his point of interest. Not only that, but he would also desire to park the car perfectly, i.e. exactly parallel to the designated spot. Finding a perfect spot would often take half an hour or longer. Parking the car perfectly soon became his obsession. Even in crowded areas with few free parking spots available, he would dismiss many of them for not being perfect enough.
Only after many years would he agree to first drop off his impatient family, and then drive off again in search of the holy grail. On some occasions, after having parked the car, he would go back and re-park it in another spot, because he was not satisfied. Cops didn’t always agree with his idea of a perfect spot, though. Imagine his shock upon returning to the car and having received the occasional parking ticket. These were the rarest moments when my dad expressed any human feelings of shame and defeat.
But such rigid obsessions not only impair the AS persons’ quality of living, but also severely impact the lives of people who have to live with them socially — spouses and children. Over time, an AS parent’s lack of empathy can damage a child’s emotional well-being. AS parents can’t even tell whether other people are feeling depressed or are suicidal. One time, when I was thirteen, I told my dad how I had been severely depressed for years. I told him that I had been contemplating suicide and had even attempted it. With a vicious smile he told me I needed to try harder. On this day, it became clear to me that my parents would never support me in life, nor care if I was dead.
My mother acted no differently. She offered her children kind touch, sparse eye contact through her dark glasses she wore indoors, few hugs and no friendly smiles. My mother’s face always looked angry, sometimes red-hot steaming with hate. Most likely, she felt extremely frustrated with the behavior of her four unpredictable sons. As a child, I always felt afraid of her. While my father largely ignored his children — unwanted nuisances — in favor of his obsessions, my mother at the very least still had to feed, clothe, bathe us, and take us to school. She could not escape attending to our basic needs, and neither could we escape her angry demeanor.
My mother was a sort of woman who would refuse to take her children to the doctor even if they had broken a bone. One of my brothers once broke his foot, but my mother ordered him to stop nagging and to go to school for a week before she would bring him to the hospital. AS parents unable to empathize with their children thus put them at great risk. River remembers:
“Once as a child I had been badly injured and, since we lived in a rural area, needed to be driven to the hospital. The injury was so severe I was in real danger of bleeding to death. … Meanwhile, we were all waiting on my father, … and he was looking for a shirt to put on so he wouldn’t have to go to the hospital without one. … [My father] was totally unable to tell how I was feeling — again, though, he very rarely seemed to care what I was feeling, …”
People suffering from autism think everyone else thinks as they do. The possibility that other people’s interests might not align with theirs eludes them. They think and act like machines connected to a single hive-mind, like the Borg in Star Trek, except there is no hive-mind. The type of ego-centrism autistic people display, therefore, isn’t really a matter of psychological egotism as we see in normal people, but of mind blindness:
“[My father] is ‘mind-blind.’ He has no real ‘theory of mind;’ … I’m not sure he completely understands that children, or anyone else for that matter, are people, or what it really means for someone to be a person.” — River
Tragically, autistic people also don’t know how to relate to their own feelings. After three decades of attempting to talk to my father, he conceded, “I have no feelings, I have no emotions, and I don’t know how to deal with people who do.” In his view, emotions and feelings stand in the way of ‘correct’ behavior. His humanness thus frustrates his ‘ability’ to be more machine-like, forcing him to dismiss his own emotions as nuisances. In truth, people with autism suffer greatly.
As a child, I knew there was something not quite right with my parents. They were too self-centered. On summer holidays, my father would sometimes demand we let him dine at a restaurant — all by himself —while ordering his family to wait outside, only to return with a doggy bag of rice and the spoon he had stolen. Contrariwise, what kind of a mother of four young boys puts up with that kind of egotistic behavior?
My mother would frequently skip lunch or dinner, so she could offer her children more food — a mechanical solution to a social problem. She would rather starve herself or eat our left-overs, while her husband, a well-earning architect, hoarded most of his money and refused to provide for his children. My father even demanded to save the government child benefits payments, because he thought he could make money off children. And it’s not that we were poor — we lived in a middle class home with two cars and four children going to school. It’s just that my father hoarded his inherited riches to the point of self-imposed poverty.
River describes his father, “He is quite egocentric, self-centered and most often lost in his own world.” Another summarizes, “[My father] is an isolated individual who rarely displays any type of outward affection.” Felicity explains, “[My father] has no sense of anyone else at all, how they feel or how his behavior can make them feel. He is very focused on his hobbies and pursues them with obsessive tendencies. I used to think he was very selfish, he just seems unaware of the world around him.”
“[My father] has always been extremely socially inept and unable to read ‘cues’. He relies on my mother to tell him how to dress, act, take care of himself.” — Miriam
My father would never buy me a birthday present, unless he had timely instructed my mother to buy a gift, so he could give it to me. One time, he even ordered my mother to buy her own birthday gifts, so he could fool his family into thinking he had been such a thoughtful husband! My mother would comply, even feigning surprise at receiving the gift she had bought for herself. Of course, they didn’t fool anyone. Keeping up the front was all that really mattered.
The one thing that has hurt me so much, was not that I didn’t receive birthday presents, but that my father has never once struck up a casual conversation with me. Because of his autism disorder, he could never show even the slightest interest in how my life was going, even when I was sitting right in front of him.
“In desperation to be noticed, we would often resort to getting negative attention from [our mother] as well as our father. It was the only attention my father would give us and my mother couldn’t ignore.” — Anonymous
Verbal Aggression and Violent Interrogations
During our long summer holidays, my father preferred to keep on driving for many days, crossing all of Europe. Many of our vacations involved scouring high-ways, dodging toll roads and city traffic in order to find a ‘perfect place’ to stay, often speeding past the greatest views. To avoid unnecessary breaks, besides inevitable gas stops, my father ordered my mother to play navigator. But while my mother couldn’t read maps and signs very well, my father didn’t really know where he wanted to go anyway. Nevertheless, every time my mother supposedly had made a ‘mistake’, it would set off my father’s rage.
The fights my parents had while driving along highways were the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. As the oldest child, I often pleaded with my parents to either stop yelling at each other, or to stop driving until they had cooled off. But they refused. In some cases, such fights ended in the threat of divorce, but they would never go through with it. Back home, during work weeks, my mom and dad had learned to avoid each other as much as possible. But on these compulsory summer holidays, both their autistic worlds crashed into each other with full force. Truthfully, the only thing that has stopped my parents from ever divorcing is their autism that makes them resist such change…
An anonymous victim writes:
“[My father] would lecture us constantly on such topics as Responsibility or The Way Things Are or How To Behave. … He would rant and rave, literally foaming at the mouth. In this condition, a wrong word or look could result in him suddenly hitting a child.”
People with high-functioning autism don’t know what is appropriate public behavior, as another victim explains:
“[My father] did not know how to manage conflict, even minor ones, like a misunderstanding over a hotel reservation or a mistake in a restaurant bill (which he always obsessively checked). He would either become incredibly aggressive and threatening, or else if he could not intimidate the other person, he would withdraw and later obsess and perseverate endlessly over how wrongly he had been treated.” — Anthony
“In arguments, [my parents] must always be right — if I began by talking about some misunderstanding or slight by them, they would immediately turn the argument against me saying that I was being ‘disrespectful’ and should apologize for even bringing anything up. Then they would launch into all the ‘bad behavior’ I had ever done over the last ten years … to prove that they deserved an apology instead of me.”
Oftentimes, my father would interrogate my mother over things he perceived she had done wrong. During such hour-long interrogations, often while drinking alcohol, he demanded an explanation. But my mother often couldn’t explain herself. My parents spent at least a hundred nights verbally destroying each other over the most frivolous details. Anything that had not met his impossible, mechanical standards for doing a household ‘right’, my mother had to account for. If the salad he had had at dinner hadn’t been salty enough, she could face a two-hour interrogation over her motives. There was no escape.
As children watching these fights unfold, we suffered greatly. There was nothing we could do to make our parents end their disagreements. River testifies on such interrogations:
“Just about every day I spent with [my father] in the house involved at least one violent interrogation over something I had done or failed to do. He would ask me, over and over again, why I had done whatever the offense was — like forgetting to do something he had told me to do when he’d told me to do it, or accidentally ruining a possession. Then he would rant, scream, throw things, and hit when he didn’t get rational answers that would satisfy him but were far beyond our ability to provide. Many times I wasn’t even certain what I had done to set him off, but he would mock me viciously if I asked what I had done. Clearly he thought I knew exactly what I had done and thought that I had done it, whatever it was, intentionally, just to upset him.”
Because autistic people frequently clash with others who cannot comprehend their awkward behaviors, they quickly learn to avoid social situations. As a result, many people on the autism spectrum have no social life. They even minimize contact with their families. Children of such socially isolated people cannot understand their AS parents’ behaviors either, and often feel ashamed apologizing for them. Johanna writes:
“I was ashamed of [my mother], and when I was out with my friends and she happened to walk by and say hello to me I pretended not to hear her or know her.”
“My parents are completely isolated, they have no friends and rarely ever talk about their families … Almost all the holidays, birthdays, and other celebratory events in my family have been marred in one way or another by my parents’ bad behavior. … They pick fights with waiters about where to sit in a restaurant, they argue with salespeople over tiny discrepancies, and they can be physically pushy.”
III. Effects of Emotional Neglect
In his book, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood writes:
“What are the reactions of the typical children in the family to having a parent with Asperger’s syndrome? Each child will have his or her own way of coping. The typical child can sometimes feel that he or she is ‘invisible’ or a nuisance to the parent with Asperger’s syndrome, and may feel deprived of the acceptance, reassurance, encouragement and love that he or she expects and needs. … The child only feels valued for his or her achievements, not for him- or herself. Conversations with the parent with Asperger’s syndrome can be a prolonged monologue of the adult’s own problems, with only a brief and superficial interest in the child’s problems. The child learns not to express emotions such as distress or to expect compassion.”
That last sentence states the crux of the matter. As children of autistic parents, we learn not to expect love. We learn to suppress the expression of our own emotions. And this is what kills us inside. Children with one or two parents suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder do not receive the emotional and psychological support they deserve in order to become fully functional adults. Especially in the case of two parents suffering from autism, the result is as if being raised by robots. Children of AS parents grow up without love, and they blame themselves for being too flawed. Attwood inisghtfully continues:
“There are several coping mechanisms. The lack of affection and encouragement, and high expectations can result in the child becoming an adult who is a high achiever, as an attempt to eventually experience the parental adulation that was missing throughout childhood. Another mechanism is to escape the situation, spending time with the families of friends, and leaving home as soon as possible, preferably some distance away, to avoid family reunions. One of the reactions can be an intense hatred of the parent with Asperger’s syndrome for not being the parent the child needs. The child may encourage the non-Asperger’s syndrome parent to seek a divorce, but separation is not easy, since it is clear that the partner with Asperger’s syndrome probably could not cope, practically or emotionally, alone.”
Psychologist Mark Hutten warns:
“Reports received by people raised by parents with Aspergers are somewhat disturbing. Many children of Aspergers parents report that they developed severe self-esteem problems because their mother or father could not give them the warmth, empathy and caring they needed growing up. These same people reported bouts with severe depression from what they perceived as rejection from their Aspergers parent on an emotional level. The child’s physical needs were well taken care of, but they had no emotional support. For people raised by parents with Aspergers, the lack of emotional support seemed to have hurt them very much.”
The lack of emotional support damages people all the way from childhood into adulthood. Personally, I survived half a dozen suicide attempts as a teenager, because I mistakenly believed both of my parents hated me. But I knew no other reality. I felt invisible. An anonymous victim describes his personal purgatory as follows:
“… I was astute enough to realize that my mother wasn’t showing me any love, which meant that something was wrong with someone, and if there was nothing wrong with my mother, that must mean that something was wrong with ME. I’m no psychologist, but I’d say it stands to reason that if someone grows up thinking that her mother is unable to show her any love because she’s too flawed to warrant maternal affection, that person is going to have some ‘issue’. And in fact I’ve struggled my whole life with the belief that I am too fundamentally flawed to deserve love or even a modicum of attention. I have had years of therapy and have finally learned to be comfortable with myself, but it has been a hard road.”
The lack of emotional warmth becomes a central theme in our lives. In my early thirties, I made a final but desperate attempt at explaining to my father how he should talk with his sons. I feared that he might not live forever and it would be unbearable to me if we had never been able to have a casual conversation. After all these years, despite all my suffering, I still had not given up trying to earn my father’s love. Though he appeared to understand what I wanted him to do, he wouldn’t even try. I literally begged my father to start inquiring about my life, so I could know he was sometimes thinking of me. But he could never see the point of such inquiries.
Many victims of autistic parents struggle with their emotional neglect. Lisa writes, “My parents never hugged us and barely ever touched us as we were growing up and they rarely played with us …” Jane feels, “My mother was very distant when I was a child, no kisses or cuddles, we were never talked to.” Leanne writes, “I never remember being kissed or cuddled or shown any affection …” Caroline reminisces, “There was never any display of affection and if my father ever touched me, it made my skin crawl.” Johanna recollects, “… when [my mother] touched me she just grabbed me, almost violently. And I as a child I was afraid of her, …” And Felicity states, “[My father] has never been able to show affection, say he loves you or give you a cuddle,…”.
Children of AS parents suffer twice, first as children, then as adults, because in adulthood we receive no recognition for our pain. We go through life thinking of ourselves as inferior or lesser persons. For starters, it can take a lifetime for us to even become aware of our parents’ condition, since most AS parents consider themselves perfectly normal, and will actively keep up a front to prove it. Leanne describes her trauma as follows:
“I think AS has robbed both me and my brother of a proper childhood, made it difficult for us to have good relationships, stopped has having any sort of supportive family so left us to fend for ourselves, subjected us to constant trauma anxiety and a shifting lifestyle, left us with huge guilt why we could not love or understand our mother, and generally made life very difficult.”
It’s easy to dismiss AS parents’ disability and blame the child for not having shown more understanding. In reality, though, children of AS parents adopt destructive coping strategies that continue to damage their lives. Caroline says, “I grew up never knowing I had needs and it was possible to have them met. At [forty-seven] I still struggle to identify and ask for my needs.” Another victim of AS parents that demanded rigid compliance to their routines writes, “Failure to comply would result in [my father] getting louder and more aggressive and saying the same things over again. Of course we tried to comply and it has taken me [forty-five] years to get to the point of unraveling that mental knot.”
“I am still recovering from the pain and sense of isolation that having [an AS parent] brings …” — Cathe
After thirty-five years, the insight that my parents suffer from high-functioning autism has finally set me free. To AS parents, the love they feel for their children is assumed, and they expect their children to know they are loved. They don’t see any point in expressing their love. But neurotypical children expect to receive frequent displays of love through daily reassurances. Sadly, the love autistic parents feel for their own children forever remains trapped within the walls of their autism.
Now that I understand their condition, I can forgive them. Until now, I used to ask myself, “What did I ever do wrong to deserve such parents?” Today I ask, “What did my parents do to deserve their condition?” My confidence is now growing. And in the process of writing this article, I have found a foundation to heal my self-esteem and build my self-worth. I know that I am a worthy, competent human being, deserving of a place in the world.
In the end, if I managed to come this far in life, and do all the things I have done, then there is nothing in this world that can hurt me any longer. You see, unlike most people, I’ve already been through hell.
I struggled and emerged stronger.
- Asperger Parents and Neurotypical Children by Jody Smith
- NT Children of Parents with Aspergers: Looking for Information? by Jody Smith
- Feeling Invisible in the Asperger World by Kathy Marshack
- There’s something different about dad by Ailin Quinlan
- Parents with Aspergers by Mark Hutten
- The Invisible Power of Childhood Emotional Neglect by Randi Kreger
- Understanding a parent with autism by the National Autistic Society (UK)
- The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007) by Tony Attwood
The following articles by yours truly may also be of help:
- Unconditional Positive Regard: Being Loved for Who You Are
- Verbal Abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- The Effect of Emotional Abuse: The Blows that Damage One’s Self-Image
- Turning Gold into Lead: The Life-Long Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences
- The Repressed Past: Healing a Negative Self-Image
- Beyond Conditional Love: Healing Childhood Maltreatment by Breaking Through the Wall of Ignorance