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Author tackles issue of undiagnosed autism among older people in new novel

There’s A Problem With Dad by Carlos Alba

There was something unusual about my first ever meeting with my future father-in-law. I’d been in the company of previous girlfriends’ fathers and they usually took the lead in conversation, asked me questions and, if I seemed nervous, tried to put me at my ease.

None of this happened with Andrew. He was largely silent, he held back, and my overriding memory is of catching him staring at me quite a lot.

As my relationship with his daughter Hilary developed, I met him frequently, but I never felt like I got to know him any better. The silences continued, he rarely if ever gave away any detail about himself, and I always felt like the senior figure.

One-on-one chats with him weren’t like anything I’d experienced before.

Normal conversations start with one person revealing something, making an observation or voicing an opinion. The other person takes on board what has been said, interprets it and responds, offering their own input.

Andrew didn’t seem to understand those rules and if he did, he wasn’t capable of following them.

He often made an observation or voiced an opinion but when I responded, the conversation ended abruptly. He didn’t seem interested in moving the discussion on, so time spent with him was a series of stop-start exchanges followed by long periods of silence.

His observations or questions varied little. When I was a journalist on a Sunday newspaper, his question every Sunday morning was the same: ‘What’s in the news this week?’ No matter what my response was – I could have said that Martians had landed – his reaction was identical. Silence.

In 2010, I read a book called Shoot the Damn Dog by former colleague Sally Brampton about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Midway through the book she revealed that her father was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, also known as high functioning autism, in his seventies.

Author Carlos Alba

She listed a series of behaviours her father exhibited throughout his life: he was a solitary man who didn’t make friends easily, he was a stickler for routine, he never showed any emotion, he had no sense of humour, he was awkward in company and he could come across as gauche, curt or aloof. He also had physical symptoms, including poor hearing and his diet was restricted because he didn’t like the texture of some foods.

Reading those pages was like a bolt of lightning for me – all of them, without exception, applied to Andrew.

Unlike their ‘neurotypical’ counterparts, people with Asperger’s Disorder don’t experience emotion in the same way and so they have trouble picking up on verbal and non-verbal signals. Because they don’t understand the underlying meanings of certain words or actions, they miss the kind of social cues that most people take for granted.

That’s the reason why they don’t follow the normal rules of conversation, get jokes and or appreciate the emotional impact or implications of certain situations or statements.

Andrew arrived at our front door early one Sunday morning and, without ceremony, asked to speak to Hilary. I told her that she had gone into hospital the day before suffering from chronic stomach cramps and that she had been kept in overnight.

After staring at me blankly for a few seconds, he said: ‘Can I borrow your mitre saw?’

He died in 2013, aged 72, without being diagnosed but, shortly before he passed away, he accepted that he probably did have Asperger’s Disorder.

‘Hilary suffered from having a father incapable of showing any emotion and what made it worse for her was not knowing why. At least having an explanation was some kind of comfort’

When I came to write my third novel, I found the subject too compelling to ignore. While George Lovelace, the hero of There’s a Problem with Dad, is not Andrew, the character was undoubtedly inspired by my experience of living with someone with undiagnosed, high functioning autism.

While, as a family, we can still laugh at some of Andrew’s comical responses to certain situations, there was a more serious side to his behaviour. Hilary suffered from having a father incapable of showing any emotion and what made it worse for her was not knowing why. At least having an explanation was some kind of comfort.

As a relatively recent area of study, many people now in their 40s and over are now seeking diagnoses to help manage their lives better and to offer comfort to relatives.

The message I hope my book communicates is that recognising and understanding autism is essential in helping to bring in people too often left on the margins.

There’s a Problem with Dad, published by Ringwood is available to pre-order here.

Main pic: @apostolosv

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