Navigating Love and Connection: Growing Up with a Dad on the Spectrum
Author: Erica Holmes
Parent-child relationships are unique and often shaped by the ways in which individuals express love and build connections. Having a dad on the autism spectrum has provided me with a different perspective on love, communication, and connection. While unconventional, the journey of understanding my father's unique ways of showing affection has opened my eyes to the beauty of embracing differences and finding genuine connection in unexpected places.
The Unconventional Language of Love
One valuable lesson I've learned is that the way an autistic person expresses affection can differ greatly from societal norms. My mother's insight that people need to ask individuals on the autism spectrum how they prefer to give and receive love struck a chord with me. What may appear unconventional to others can be a profound display of care and affection. My dad and I have our own unique ways of bonding that outsiders might find strange, but they hold a special place in my heart.
One of my cherished memories is the goofy camaraderie my dad and I share. We revel in our "weird" moments, often at the expense of my mom. The mutual enjoyment of creating odd sounds, derived from scat music, allows us to share laughter and silliness. Similarly, we indulge in inappropriate jokes that leave my mom uncomfortable but create lasting memories. These unconventional bonding activities might not fit the mold of traditional quality time, yet they serve as our special connection.
The Power of Non-Verbal Communication
Growing up, I came to understand that quality time doesn't always entail deep conversations. Instead, my dad's unique form of connection often revolves around non-verbal interactions. Our "secret door language" for saying goodnight exemplifies this. These non-verbal exchanges have taught me that communication comes in many forms, each holding its own significance.
Love in Unexpected Gestures
My dad's frugality, although sometimes puzzling, takes on a different meaning in the context of affection. Whenever I'd request something seemingly random from the grocery list, he'd get it for me. This seemingly small act becomes a gesture of gift-giving, a way he expresses his care. Even his sporadic texts expressing love while I'm at school reinforce his deep affection.
Shared Activities as Bonds
As I journeyed through different stages of life, I noticed shifts in our relationship dynamics. The conversational gap that emerged as I grew older initially left me feeling disconnected. However, I've come to realize that my dad's preference for silence is his way of fostering a connection. While he finds solace in quiet moments, my talkative nature has often interpreted this as disinterest. These disparities led to me internalizing doubts about his feelings for me.
Our different ways of showing and interpreting affection highlighted a crucial point: understanding each other's perspectives is paramount. My dad's view that quality time involves shared silence directly contrasts with my inclination for conversation. Our divergent communication styles resulted in misinterpretation, with me perceiving him as aloof. This term, commonly associated with individuals on the autism spectrum, highlighted the gap between our emotional experiences.
Bridging the Gap
Confronting this communication chasm paved the way for positive change. As a family, we've embarked on a journey to harmonize our need for connection. Incorporating board games, movie nights, bike rides, and shared interests have become strategies to bridge our differences. These activities allow us to find common ground and create moments that transcend our contrasting communication styles.
Honoring Individual Preferences
The path to strengthening connections with a neurodivergent parent requires honoring their preferences and ways of thinking. Recognizing that my dad thrives in silence as a bonding mechanism has expanded my understanding of love. While it may differ from my extroverted nature, respecting his comfort zone has become essential.
Growing up with a dad on the autism spectrum has granted me a profound appreciation for the diversity of love languages and connection styles. Our unconventional bonding rituals have demonstrated that intimacy doesn't always require words; it can thrive in shared quirks and unique expressions. Embracing our differences, striving to understand each other's perspectives, and finding common ground have enabled us to build a stronger relationship. Through this journey, I've learned that love knows no bounds, and authentic connections are possible in the most unexpected ways.
This article is based on Chapter 11 of the Holmes’ new book, Embracing the Autism Spectrum: Finding Hope and Joy Navigating the NeuroDiverse Family System. Coming Fall of 2023!
You can hear more from Erica on this story in the podcast.