If you have recently received a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for one of your children, you may be asking yourself, “How could this be?”
You are probably experiencing a lot of emotions right now, but your brain has also kicked into high gear as you search for an explanation. You want to know “Why?” Where did it come from? Isn’t Asperger Syndrome an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? Is it genetic? Is it due to a poor diet or childhood immunizations? Could our toxic environment be a contributor?
While there are many contributing factors (such as environmental toxins and dietary sensitivities) and scientists are still uncovering the mystery of ASDs, one often overlooked factor is that one or both parents probably have an Autism Spectrum Disorder or at least some of the traits. Since we did not start diagnosing Asperger Syndrome until 1994 here in the United States, there are many parents with the disorder who were not diagnosed as children. Now when one of their own children is diagnosed, and as the parents start learning more about the traits of autism, the dawning light of recognition begins. Many of the Asperger traits that they see in their children are very similar to the traits of the parents, grandparents and other family members. Undeniably there is a strong genetic component to Asperger Syndrome.
Here is one example.
Beverly waltzed into my office, her long full skirt swishing as she walked. She was wearing flip flops and a much-too-tight blouse that was not a match for her skirt. No matter, you don’t have to be a fashionplate to see a psychologist. I noticed that Beverly had smudged “coke bottle” glasses, betraying her nearsightedness. Her blonde hair was her most attractive feature, especially because it was arranged in one of those contemporary mussed-up hairdos . . . or was it mussed because she didn’t comb it this morning? Nevertheless she presented a warm and friendly smile as she greeted me.
Beverly was already 20 minutes late for her appointment with me and yet she didn’t seem to realize it. She chatted amiably about the weather, while she arranged herself in the armchair, and placed her extra-large carryall at her feet. She rummaged through her bag looking for something–her cell phone, I think, since it began making noise just as she sat down. She apologized profusely for the ringing cell phone, pulled it out of her bag, checked who the call was from, then smiled at me . . . and took the call. She chatted aimlessly with the caller and only after several minutes did it occur to her to tell the caller she was in an appointment with me. Again she apologized and we started our session, with about 15 minutes left of the therapy hour.
Beverly has two children on the Spectrum and her husband has been formally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Yet Beverly has no idea she has Asperger Syndrome too. She jokes that she is like Einstein and can’t stand to wear socks, even in the winter. She is anxious most of the time. She misjudges time. She has trouble reading facial expressions. But she is so bright and well educated that until her children were diagnosed she never saw the symptoms in herself.
Then there is George.
George is a tense and driven entrepreneur. He is highly successful in business. In fact, he was a multimillionaire before he turned 40. George has two children, all of whom have special needs. One has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia. The other has Asperger Syndrome. Yet George denies that he has any traits of the Autism Spectrum. He works 24/7, leaving all of the childcare to his wife. Fortunately she can hire private tutors and household help or she would not be able to keep up with her children’s special needs.
Liza, George’s wife tells me, “I love my husband but he wears me out. He works nonstop and expects me to take care of everything else. He is willing to pay for private schools for the children, but never once has he come to a school conference. He won’t learn about the children’s special needs and as the kids get older I worry about his temper. As it is, he seems kind of clueless about the kids. For example, when the kids get tired of waiting for Dad to get home for dinner, they can have meltdowns. George insists that we wait for him to eat dinner but sometimes he doesn’t walk in until 10 p.m. or later. Then he gets angry that we didn’t wait for him. I fed the kids and put them to bed long ago to avoid their tantrums. Now I have to listen to his! Sometimes it is a nightmare.”
Both Beverly and George have symptoms of Asperger Syndrome, which is a type of very high-functioning autism. They are bright, well-educated people, so they are very successful at careers or other vocations. But when it comes to interpersonal relating, such as showing up on time . . . or recognizing the needs of children to eat at a regular hour . . . or the needs of a spouse for emotional support . . . well, they have not acquired these skills. These types of skills are the very ones their children struggle with also. A hallmark of Asperger Syndrome is a lack of social radar that leads both children and adults with AS to miss the social reciprocity that is so essential to making relationships work.
A diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for your child is the beginning of a major transformation for a family. Now at least you have a direction to start exploring for some answers. Hopefully you will find a team of professionals to help you reconstruct a medical, psychological and educational plan for your child. But all of your hard work will go up in smoke if you do not come to terms with the fact that most likely one or both parents are on the Autism Spectrum too. How can you parent effectively if you have not resolved the confusion and misdirection from your own undiagnosed childhood? It’s true for all parents, not just AS parents, that to be an effective and loving parent, you have to clean up your own bad habits and insecurities. If our goal as parents is to raise children with strong self-esteem, which leads to a “can-do” attitude in adult life, then we need to take stock of our own behaviors first.