I think of ours as a mixed family – two members probably neurotypical, two probably autistic. Within our family of four is a mixed marriage – my husband Calvin being the neurotypical one and me being the autistic – and a mixed set of siblings – my older son Charles likely autistic (in the process of being diagnosed) and my younger son Sandy very likely not. These configurations have their challenges, as you might expect, but also a lot of benefits for all of us.
I’ve always been drawn to friends and romantic partners who posses the social skills and confidence that I lack – it’s comfortable for me to take a supporting role in relationships and in social situations. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I realized I was autistic, but my gregarious friends have also probably always been role models that I could keep close and learn from – watching what they do so I know what to do, following their leads, listening to the things they say and when they say them so that I can file away some useful social scripts. I wasn’t consciously picking out such people as social mentors, but I think that I subconsciously sought them out to teach and sometimes shield me in situations that were difficult for me to navigate alone.
My husband Calvin has been this sort of mentor to me, except that not only can I follow his lead, I can also rehash social situations with him after the fact, venting about the things that were difficult for me, and getting his point of view and sometimes advice on what I should do when I have conflicts with other people. We’re different in a lot of ways, but in many others we are similar, and we agree on most things in life.
In a lot of the ordinary responsibilities of having a family together, we are able to divide chores and duties in ways that suit each of us and help me to not get terribly overwhelmed. I’m a homebody, so I don’t mind doing most of the cleaning and cooking and boring organizational stuff like filing our taxes. He likes to drive and is better at handling what I think of as things-in-motion, so he runs most of the errands, does most of the shopping, takes care of the daily financial situation.
The main challenge that our differing neurologies present is that he can’t relate to my sensory processing difficulties. He doesn’t know what it’s like to deal with overload, and so when I am overloaded he tends to perceive me as just being cranky. He doesn’t quite understand that sensory input physically fatigues me, so sometimes tells me I just need to get more sleep, when all I really need is an hour or two alone to recover. It’s hard to explain to him that although I love staying home with the kids and enjoy his company too, being with them takes something out of me that only alone time can restore.
When Sandy was born, Charles was only two years old. For the first two years, I wasn’t sure they would ever be friends, but I hoped at least they would learn to peacefully coexist. But after Sandy turned two and began to talk quite a lot and run and jump and play, Charles saw him with new affection. In the last several months, they’ve become the best of friends – still fighting sometimes, as brothers do, but they play together a lot and clearly love each other. Charles understands his little brother’s funny toddler accent even better than I do sometimes, and I think that Sandy has taught him a lot more social language and gestures than I ever could. They’re learning to settle their own disagreements and solve problems together.
Sandy looks up to Charles and wants to imitate everything he does – and for the most part, Charles enjoys that. He thinks it’s hilarious when Sandy repeats after him and copies his movements. They are physically affectionate toward each other, roughhousing and cuddling in equal measure. They are different in a lot of ways – Sandy is super social and talks to other people almost constantly, while Charles is pretty introverted and retreats into his own head a lot – but for the most part they complement each other more than they clash.
Where they do run into trouble tends to be that Charles needs to control his environment a lot, and that sometimes leaves Sandy without a lot of say in the matter. Meanwhile, Sandy is very talkative, and Charles sometimes just needs to get away from him. Calvin and I do our best to help both of them work things out without “taking sides” or creating a winner and a loser in their conflicts. Usually there is a way for everyone to be heard and satisfied.
Sometimes when parents of autistic children read about the chances for those children to grow up and have healthy relationships – get married, have their own children – they run into discouraging statistics or narratives that emphasize the problems their children might face. But I would tell those parents that, to the extent that your children someday grow up and want partners or families – not everyone does, and that’s totally fine – their potential for happiness is great. Our children are autistic pioneers – they won’t suffer the shame and the pressure to deny their true selves that previous generations of autistic people have endured. They can be aware of the ways they are different, sensitive to the areas where they need support, and know that they are worthy of love. Our little mixed family makes it work by respecting everyone’s differing needs, and that’s something our children can take with them into adulthood.