In honor of Autism Awareness and Acceptance month, I want to share my personal experiences with my loved ones with ASD, and offer some suggestions in developing a relationship with your loved one with Autism.
As a speech-language pathologist working in the field for ten years, I am no stranger to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We studied it extensively in school, and I have worked with many individuals with ASD.
My father struggled for decades with various conditions including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although these conditions impacted him significantly, they all stemmed from one thing; Autism. It wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he was diagnosed with high-functioning ASD, formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
Our family learned of his diagnosis while I was in graduate school for speech-language pathology. I was studying Autism at the time my mother called to tell me what my father’s new psychologist said. My mother and siblings were in disbelief, and some still are, but it made perfect sense to me. It was a relief.
I finally understood my relationship with my father in a new light.
For years I struggled to feel close to my father. I wondered why he didn’t seem to interact with me in the same way my friends’ dads did. Why didn’t he like to hug me? Does he really prefer to watch TV instead of spending time with us? Why couldn’t we relate to each other or share common interests? Intellectually, I knew he loved me because he said so, although not often. My father frequently bought all of us presents whenever he went to the store. He knew exactly what my siblings and I liked, and he never failed to remember us. He was doing everything he knew to show us his affection. Why then, did I feel so detached?
Once I heard the word Autism, a light bulb went off.
The reason my dad couldn’t connect with me wasn’t that he didn’t love me as much as other parents love their children. It was because his brain was wired differently than mine. Suddenly, there was an explanation for the abrupt way he interacted with others that felt rude or unkind. I knew the reason he had difficulty developing relationships with our family and why he had no close friends. I finally “got” why it was difficult for me to understand him.
When I adjusted my thinking, my relationship with my father did a complete 180. Why? Because my expectations for him changed. The yardstick I used to “measure” my father’s affection was new! I saw my father through a different lens, and our relationship began to change. It was wonderful!
I also realized that my older brother had characteristics of high-functioning Autism, and this has benefited me greatly. My brother has no intention of seeking a diagnosis as he feels it is of no benefit to him; however, now that I understand, I have been able to cultivate a close relationship with him while other family members often struggle to connect.
Perhaps some of you reading this article have a loved one who has Autism. Do you struggle, as I did, with how to relate and connect? I want to share some strategies that have helped me and my family.
Five Ways to Develop a Relationship with Your Loved One with Autism
Number one: Meet them where they are.
It’s easy to be frustrated if your loved one shows little to no interest in interacting with you. Understand that we cannot change their interests and badgering them to join in our activity of choice is not going to work. Although our intentions are good, our behavior can be interpreted as controlling, and it usually backfires.
When I invited my brother to “hang out” with me, he would ask what we would be doing, and if it wasn’t something that interested him, he’d say, “No thanks.” Meeting my brother “where he was” meant learning about a card game he loved. Knowing that he didn’t have anyone to play with, I asked him if he would teach me. He spent much more time with me from then on, because we did something he enjoyed, and he was impressed that I was interested in one of his favorite past-times. He even became willing to do things that I preferred as a result. It’s been pretty cool.
Number two: Don’t take things personally.
It’s also easy to be offended by someone who may lack tact, display disinterest, or struggle to connect with you despite your best efforts. They aren’t going out of their way to hurt your feelings, and it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
When I get frustrated, I try to focus on the intent of their message and not their actual words. For example, at family gatherings, my dad doesn’t usually take part in group activities and prefers to stay on the sidelines.
While I was writing this article, my dad told me, “I just need them to understand that I don’t want to play. I’m perfectly happy sitting on the couch nearby. I wish they wouldn’t badger me.”
Number three: Make it safe.
There will be many times you’ll need to give constructive criticism or feedback about their actions. It is critical to create an emotionally safe environment because if the individual does not feel safe, it won’t be effective. Try using “I-statements” to accomplish this.
For example, “When ABC happened, I felt …”. This is a factual statement. It isn’t about blaming. Then you can make a request, “Next time could you XYZ?”. The most important part of this is the tone of your voice. Be calm. Be kind.
Number four: Appreciate.
The adage “you catch more bees with honey” is powerful. We all need appreciation and validation, and people with ASD are no different.
Celebrate successes when they do something you know was hard for them. For example, my dad likes to write newsletters to stay in touch with our large family. He told me he often feels discouraged when he doesn’t get a response after sending them. It’s easy for us to neglect this simple courtesy, but it’s equally as easy to send him a short email saying, “Thanks, Dad. We love you.” My dad said, “I like to know people are thinking about me, especially now that I’m retired. It’s nice to get a phone call now and then.”
Number five: Acknowledge your own needs.
It is important to recognize that we also have needs, and it isn’t necessary to constantly accommodate their preferences or walk on eggshells to avoid conflicts. If we don’t recognize what we need, we may feel resentful, so it is important to be mindful about what behaviors or situations are unhealthy for your relationship. We should understand how we are feeling, advocate for our needs, and be kinder to ourselves and our loved one.
For example, when my mom struggles with my dad, she is direct and tells him exactly what she needs. One night, my dad put himself to bed and turned off the living room light even though my mom was still using it. That really put her out. The next week, he turned her lamp on for her in their room so that when she went to bed she didn’t have to stumble in the dark after he had already gone to bed.
She told me, “He knows what makes me happy, but doesn’t do it consistently, and he needs to be reminded.” My dad chimed in that he can remember, “long enough to get out of the doghouse.”
Although my father, brother, and I may have the occasional “bump in the road” in our relationship, we now have a mutual understanding. We realize our brains work differently, and we appreciate and accept each other as unique individuals. Along the way, I’ve learned some great strategies that will hopefully work for everyone.
But most importantly, and what I’ve known all along, is that loving a person with ASD is about kindness, acceptance, patience, gentleness, and making others feel important. Isn’t that what we all deserve?