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When I Realized Autism Is Part of My Family's Heritage

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Autism is surrounded by much controversy as to what causes it. Is it vaccinations? No. Autism predates vaccinations. Is it abuse? No. The best parents in the world can have an autistic child. Environmental, weak at best. As soon as a family changed environments they wouldn’t have another autistic child, yet often they do. Pollution? No. Autism emerged when pollution was drastically lower than it is now. Then what causes it?

In 1943 Leo Kanner, the first person to openly observe and publish studies on autism, also noticed the same eccentricities in the parents of the child that the autistic child exhibited. Mr. Leo Kanner thought the condition was genetic, even though he would waver on that belief throughout his lifetime.

When I hear that the person who first recognized and studied autism originally thought autism was a genetically inherited uniqueness, I get chills. I can recall, quite clearly, the two people who raised me from the age of 2 to the age of 8 — my grandparents. They are the perfect example for the argument that autism has a strong genetic component. Both of them were loving and introverted, for the most part.

My grandma was a quiet and compassionate woman. She didn’t have many friends, but she did have her routines. Up in the morning, coffee, breakfast, daily obligations. Then she would rock in her rocking chair while watching the same shows she did the day before and the day before that, as she sipped her wine. Her rocking chair was her favorite chair. The only place she sat. My dear grandmother also walked on her toes, a trait I possess. As an adult, now knowing the quirks of autism, I’ve realized those were her stims and I smile. She is part of me.

My grandmother had additional signs of autism such as sensory processing disorder, undiagnosed, but with 20/20 hindsight it’s obvious to me. She had an exaggerated startle reflex to loud or unexpected sounds. They clearly gave her anxiety. She had moved out of my grandfather’s room, or removed him from hers, I’m not sure which, because his snoring kept her awake. (In all fairness, he was a champion snorer and you could hear him everywhere!) However, everyone assumed it was because she held a grudge but no one knew what it was. I’m thinking it was just about the snoring.

Grandma’s bedroom also had blackout shutters turning her room unnaturally dark, even in the daytime. These shutters were also installed in my room as they probably recognized my sensory processing issues as well. Even if they didn’t know what it was, they knew I needed more darkness than other people to be able to sleep. As a young child, I would climb into bed with her. I have faint, but happy, memories of her carrying me down the hall back to my own room. Now I know it was because she couldn’t sleep with a tossing and turning 4-year-old in the same bed with her.

She also had a peculiar obsession with collecting bread bag tabs, twist ties, and plastic TV dinner trays when they became more common. She claimed it was because she was a child of The Great Depression and they kept everything just in case. But bread bag tan closures? I think it was autism.

Grandma was also very logical and applied knowledge to life. There was a time when nonverbal me was fussy because of a tummy ache. So what did she do? Instead of fawning over me and trying to appease my irritability, she crouched down to my level and gently put pressure on my stomach and on my back with her hands. This caused the gas that was giving me pain to escape in a rather loud passing. She smiled and asked me if I felt better. I nodded; I did.

When I was 17 and “dating” I showed her a picture of the boy I was seeing and referred to him as my intended. I was really into older works of literature so I’d borrow archaic terms and words from them. Grandma didn’t get “girly” like many other women by saying he was cute or asking how we met and wanting every emotional play by play. No, she instead informed me about the meaning of the term “my intended.” It was only after I told her I was aware that it meant the person I was going to marry that she became upset, because I was too young.

Oh, Grandpa! Grandpa was intelligent. Scientific. Loving. A collector of objects, lover of radios, and a fan of knowledge. A believer that faith and knowledge could exist in harmony. My grandfather loved fishing, and every time he would go he would bring back gravel from the locale he had visited. He would store his collection of gravel in coffee cans in the garage on a shelf above his workbench. Each one was labeled with masking tape and Magic Marker, noting what it was and what beach it was from. All uniform, all organized.

My grandpa was also the collector of knowledge. He taught me about the Greek Gods. He had books on everything from fish to mushrooms. I used to look at his books in awe at the array of color this world has provided for us through flora and fauna. My favorite was the book of fish and pictures of the deep. I was a water baby, loving the sensory control it provided when I was submerged. So I would imagine what it was like to be at the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe from the world above.

Grandpa had extensive knowledge, no doubt about that, but he had two narrow interests I can vividly recall: his garden and his radio. He would spend hours on both of them. His garden had everything in it: tomatoes, squash, eggplant, green beans, corn and more. It was magnificent! He’d spend summer days picking bright green, horned worms out of the tomato plants. Behind the garden were orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees. A loquat tree and strawberries also had a place in the yard. He knew everything about gardening and even made the side yard into a greenhouse, complete with a compost bin. Grandpa loved different vegetables and would brine his own olives. He was perfectly content to be by himself. Like I am.

Grandpa's backyard now.
Grandpa’s backyard now

When he wasn’t gardening, you could hear Grandpa on his radio in the garage. Click, click, click with the Morse code. The crackle of the static. Maybe a beep or two. He would make friends this way. Much like the autistic community of today has found connection in chat rooms and on Twitter, my grandfather found connection through the airwaves of the 1980s. I know he had a friend in Russia and a few in Canada. He was of Hispanic descent and loved learning about different cultures and sharing his. Much to my grandma’s dismay, he also treated me to freshly fried, hot chicharrones — fried pork rinds which she thought were disgusting! They were delicious.

To me, in my memories, both of them were clearly on the spectrum. They both had narrow interests, routines and stims. They both were perfectly content in solitude. Neither of them were especially physically affectionate, but they knew when to give hugs and when not to. They were incredibly loving and empathetic in a way I understood even if others didn’t. I saw evidence of masking (a form of “acting” autistic people assume so they fit in with neurotypical people/society better) in pictures and other relics of family history. Like my grandma attempting to sell Mary Kay. My grandfather portraying himself as a ladies man in old home video reels. All of it. Them.

They are where I come from. They are my genetic code. They are the people from which my autism flows. Autism is my heritage, my legacy and I cherish it because it connects me to them.

This story originally appeared on Beautidivergence.

Getty image by George Marks.

Originally published: August 19, 2020
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