In the autism community, it can’t help but be noticed that a good portion of the parents of autistic kids deal with the same kinds of issues their children do. Indeed, researchers also noticed that the personality traits that were similar in kind to autistic traits and behaviors, but usually of less intensity, were present in many of the family members of autistic individuals.
These personality quirks and issues that mirror autistic traits (but usually less in number and in intensity) are known as the broad autism phenotype. Micali et al. (2004) note that the “genetic liability is not only conﬁned to autism per se, but also applies to a constellation of subtler abnormalities, known as the broad autism phenotype.”
Certainly calling this “constellation of subtler abnormalities” quirks and issues is a much more appealing way of dealing with the reality that many of us parents of autistic children have faced our own challenges in overcoming or working around or flat-out accepting (because overcoming and working around seem to be out of our reach) various social and communication deficits, or our own narrow interests that we hyper-focus on, or our own anxiety issues or sensory issues (or all of them).
Some parents even come to the realization of their own place on the spectrum after having a child diagnosed. We see ourselves and our experiences reflected back in the struggles our children face, and we feel comforted in having a name for those struggles. Even if we decide that our cluster of quirks and issues don’t rise to the need of a diagnosis, we can see ourselves and our mates, and other extended family members reflected back in our children, and we have the term broader autism phenotype to explain it.
For years, my husband and I have joked that when our powers combined (think Captain Planet), how surprising is it, really, that his issues and mine combined would bite our kids in the butt, or that our strengths would also be their strengths? Once acceptance and understanding of autism kicked in, it became increasingly easy to look around and see those traits in ourselves, in our siblings, and our parents. And it became a comfort. After all, here we all are, adults, and we made our way, mostly overcoming the worst of the issues and relying on each other to help us get through those hurdles that were still too high. If we could do it and do so without labels (other than those other kids or adults placed on us like geek, nerd, dweeb, weird, eccentric, odd, etc.), then there’s certainly hope that with a combined effort from family, school, and community, that our children will find their way in the world, hopefully with less shock and awe.
In accepting autism and the personality traits and issues that go along with it in our children, we learned to be more accepting of our own quirks and our family members’ quirks, as well. We learned to cut some slack and give more second chances. Accepting autism doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior or free passes, but understanding where the weak spots are so that more directed, targeted effort to strengthen those weak spots can occur. It meant being able to name and understand some of the issues that had kicked us in our own asses, hard, over the years, and being able to go, well, alright, then, how do we fix this? We also learned that if we wanted our children to rise above, we had better do so, as well.
Learning about autism and the broader autism phenotype, even when the scientific literature is difficult to not take personally, can be an illuminating experience.
I’ve never minded geek or nerd, or being a combination of the two, and I don’t mind knowing that I am those things because I am BAPpy, nor understanding my husband and where he’s coming from better because of his BAPpy traits.
No, life isn’t easy, and I’m not making light of the struggles that come with social anxiety or with the darn near OCD-like tendencies, and I’m sorry as all get out to see my kids struggle with my issues, to see those issues magnified and intensified in my children a hundred-fold, to realize that their genetic inheritance gave them autism and some other issues that I’d have loved to spare them. And it’s not particularly a happy moment to realize my lack of interest in social events and clubs makes helping them be more social creatures all the more difficult, but together we’re finding our niches, places where we are free to be our true selves, to leave masks behind, to be confident in who we are so that when our true selves are not embraced as we’d wish we have the internal strength to see that as the other person’s loss, not ours.
Micali, N. N., Charkrabarti, S. S.,&Fombonne, E. E. (2004). The broad autism phenotype. Autism: The International Journal of Research.