Diagnosis for My Heart: Dad, Asperger’s, and Me

SteppingStones-taking-a-stepI’ve referred to my father a number of times as having Asperger’s Syndrome. In my posts (and in my speaking and writing, I do not always mentioned that my father did not receive a formal diagnosis of Asberger’s but I still refer to him as having had it). I’d like to explain why.

First of all, I see my use of the term as accurate and a formal diagnosis irrelevant. It’s not an indictment of character or integrity to have Asperger’s or mental illness. My intent in mentioning the term is always to explain the relationship I had with my father and how learning about the condition brought healing to my relationship with him.

I didn’t understand or enjoy my Dad until well unto my adulthood. Learning he’d spent a lifetime struggling to understand his world gave me new insight and compassion for him. 

Following list of symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome is taken from WebMD. Each is a precise descriptor of my father.

  • Have a hard time relating to others. It doesn’t mean that they avoid social contact. But they lack instincts and skills to help them express their thoughts and feelings and notice others’ feelings.
  • Like fixed routines. Change is hard for them.
  • May not recognize verbal and nonverbal cues or understand social norms.
  • Appear to lack empathy.
  • Their preference for rules and honesty may lead them to excel in the classroom and as citizens.
  • Attention to detail and focused interests
  • Fascination with technology, and a common career choice is engineering.

I’m not sure Dad knew he had a hard time relating to others as much as other people regarded him as a bit “off” or socially awkward. Dad was a brilliant man, and quite social. But he would say things that were outright insulting, and he just didn’t understand why everyone else was upset because what he was saying was true. The family often shuddered when we were with him in public because we never knew what he might say to a stranger. He was blatantly critical of overweight people and anyone who didn’t measure up to his particular standards.For instance, he often told family members, “It must be nice to have so much money you can abuse your car by ignoring your tire pressure.” But he was generous to a fault and always giving to others and cared for Mom sacrifically and devotedly–refusing to leave her side until her death.

My father was well in his eighties when I first learned about Asperger’s Syndrome. Taking him for an exam and formal diagnosis would have served no purpose for him. But when I read about the condition, my heart pounded. It answered questions that had haunted me since I’d been a child.

I’d always thought my father to be cold and heartless.

Why didn’t he tell me he loved me? Why didn’t he hug me? Hold me on his lap? Let me explain things or ask me how I felt? See that his words stung like a slap? Understand that the way he talked insulted people? Always had to talk about his pet subjects? Always had to sound like he was smarter than everyone else?

I’d stared at the symptoms on the page, and suddenly, my dad transformed before my eyes. Suddenly, he made sense.

Dad hadn’t known how to tell me he loved me. He’d always wanted to say it but didn’t know how.

And he hadn’t seen or understood how lonely I was. How much I was hurting as a child. How many times he’d hurt me.

He didn’t know he was being rude to people. He didn’t understand.

So many other things about my father came into focus.

Asperger’s fit. Everything about my father suddenly came into focus.

My heart shifted and opened up. I never saw my dad the same way again.

I vowed to never leave my father or hang up the phone without telling him I loved him. If he couldn’t say the words, I’d say them for him.

When my dad passed away in January at the age of 92, he’d still only spoken the words “I love you” to me once. When I was 19– the night I was sexually assaulted by a rapist–a bittersweet way to hear the words. But it didn’t matter. In my heart, Dad had said “I love you” over and over to me because now I understood.

Perhaps you’ve struggled with relationships because you have some of the same symptoms of my father. Don’t waste your life drowning in guilt. Be honest and talk about it with your loved ones. You have a true limitation, and those who love you need to understand it. And if you know someone you think has Asperger’s, address the issue. If that person is your child or teen, consult a physician or mental health profession. If it’s you, I’d offer the same advice. Acknowledge their limitations and offer compassionate support. And if you’ve been hurt by someone with Aspberger’s, open your heart to forgiveness. Seek healing for the wounding, understanding that we cannot hold others responsible to give us what they do not have.

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