My family has secrets. I think most families probably do. From my late great grandmother all the way down to my teenager daughter, we look like a bunch of really accomplished women making our way in the world. Our matriarchal line is strong and few would guess at our secrets. The truth is, between us, we have anxiety, depression and bi-polar, to name just the official diagnoses. We don’t talk openly about this much but its impact on our lives has been great. Our secrets have not escaped the men in our family either. My father had a big secret, one that we kept hidden from the outside world. As a child, I remember that we very rarely went to social events, and when we did, my mum would watch my dad closely for the signs that we needed to leave fast. Her vigilance made me look too and I noticed that he always had one foot pointed towards an exit as if it would guide him to a speedy retreat if he needed it. Inevitably, mum would gather my sisters and I up with the whispered words ‘your father has the shivers. We have to leave’. I don’t remember when I first heard about the ‘shivers’ so this was just an accepted part of my childhood. Dad would shake when his tolerance for being around people outside of the family was reached. I do too.
My son’s diagnosis of autism is sending generational ripples through our family as we begin to follow the patterns and reveal the truth behind what some of our family secrets might mean. First came the realisation for my husband. A lifetime of feeling different to others, seeing the world in pictures and not words and being incapacitated by social situations clicked into focus. He is autistic. Something that was confusing and at times painful was given a name and with it, came acceptance and understanding. Then I remembered my father’s shivers. I started talking with my mother and through these conversations we realised that my father was very likely autistic also. This through link to my son is really significant in our family as my father desperately wanted a son, and then a grandson. Instead, he got three daughters and five granddaughters. He used to joke that even that budgie was female. My son was born after his death and would have been so appreciated by him, especially as they share so many qualities in common. I think my son would have been the key for my father understanding his own lifelong challenges and behaviours. I imagine how mind blowing it would have been for my father to learn about autism and connect this to his own life story if he was still alive today.
I don’t know why it took longer for me to make my own connections. I think it might be because autism in women looks quite different from the mainstream understanding of what it means to be autistic. I took the online quizzes like my husband did and initially came out as possessing some neurodiverse traits and some neurotypical. Then I began to meet autistic women and found that these quizzes were very geared toward men and that literature specific to autistic women’s traits captured a whole different story. I researched, read stories and had conversations with autistic women and it slowly unfolded quite naturally and beautifully, opening up my life history to be viewed under a different lens. I am autistic.
I’m unsure where the trail that my son started will lead us. It has opened up family secrets and brought clarity to a history of misunderstanding andsometimes shame. Generations of my family are neurodiverse. Many of us are neurodivergent. And because of this, we intrinsically understand the little 3 year old who has brought us so much closer to who we really are. It has allowed us to take a gentle approach to his challenges, as we personally understand sensory stresses, social anxieties and special interests. My husband collects Thomas trains and Transformers with as much excitement and joy as our son and they play for hours everyday with them. I am relishing reading anatomy and psychology texts with my son and we love to cuddle up and stim together watching anatomy videos on YouTube. We’re noticing that our son often gives voice to what we are feeling but have learnt it’s not socially acceptable to say. We understand each other here.
Given that it’s likely that autism has a genetic component, it’s not uncommon for families to begin identifying autistic traits in themselves once their child is diagnosed. For our family, this truth seeking is changing our lives. Our son’s autism diagnosis is a gift that is unlocking our stories and leading us somewhere real.