My Autism Diagnosis Finally Helped Me Understand My Family


I’ve always known that my grandmother, Frances, and I are alike. We share, to one degree or another, many of the same behaviors and ways of seeing the world that finally drove me toward my own autism diagnosis.

I wouldn’t have survived without my grandmother and her partner. They fed and clothed me, paid the doctor’s bill when I was sick, and gave me the love and acceptance I received nowhere else. I repaid this by leaving home at 18 and almost never coming back. It’s taken me 43 years to understand that I was running away from myself.

In many ways, she’s a window into how my atypical neurology has been expressed among four generations of family members. It’s as though the building blocks of my autism and associated neurological challenges were expressing themselves to a greater or lessor degree in her, her parents and siblings.

I wrote a story last week about her. It was painful to write… part apology for so seldom returning home after I turned 18, part inquest into the ways in which she, her parents and siblings were so different from others and that they had passed down to me. I posted the piece before going to bed, only to wake up in the night and take it down. It somehow had left me feeling exposed and vulnerable to the same censure I felt as a child for not fitting in or being like other people.

It took another couple of days for me to recognize that the real problem with the story was that it was missing the sense of hopefulness and self-acceptance I’ve found since my own diagnosis. No matter how challenging it is for us and for our families, being neurologically different today is far different and, in most instances, better than it was a century ago.

Frances, grew up to be sharp, no-nonsense and capable of doing complex math calculations in her head, never needing pencil and paper. She knew lots of people by name but had trouble with small talk, kept to herself and never invited anyone into her home. She got up and ate her meals at exactly the same times every day, chain-smoked her way through packs of unfiltered Kools, worked crossword puzzles and watched TV. She became distressed to the point of tears if meals weren’t on time or plans changed at the last moment.

Accepting myself as autistic has been tremendously positive for me. Understanding why and the ways in which I’m different has disrupted a lifelong pattern of fear, anxiety and depression. It also has helped me stop running away from my past. It helped me finally understand what might have been going on with my family.

I often wonder what my grandmother’s life might have been like if there weren’t so many fears about being “different.” I hope her life would be more like mine. Different from most other people’s lives, certainly, but mostly filled with happiness and hope.

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