I’m not the only person with autistic traits in my extended family. While I’m probably one of a few people in the extended family who is diagnosably autistic, autistic traits run in the family, even among people who are allistic. A few examples, drawn from people I’m fairly sure of. There are a bunch of other “maybes” in my extended family, but mental illness and addiction runs in the family and complicates matters.
- My father: Strong, enduring interests in atypical things, like animal training. Has his own set way of doing things, and if your way is different, it’s wrong. Loves routines, extremely frustrated with those who seem anti-routine, and/or those who don’t keep appointments. Highly anxious, though he would deny it fiercely. Loathes small talk like me. Floated the idea he might have Asperger’s around when I first started thinking I might be autistic. He dropped it in response to my mother’s vehement denial, then followed her lead in discouraging me to investigate further. The member of the immediate family who gets me the most, though either he’s gotten better at faking social/sensory stuff or he’s not as affected as me. He has always had a reputation for being gregarious and charismatic, so… ? Not sure. I’m up in the air about whether or not he’s autistic, but he and I are both sure he’s on the broader autism phenotype if he’s not autistic. My father would get why I’m walking with my eyes shut, but wouldn’t think to offer a hat.
- My sister: Best illustrated with her collections: She had a leaf* collection as a preschool kid. She didn’t care about the types of trees, or how pretty the leaves were, she just cared about the leaves, and counting/sorting said leaves (by size one week, then color, then type, etc). At the highest, she had about 3200 of them. When we moved, she had to leave her leaves behind because we didn’t have room to bring them (I also had to leave most of my books – no pun intended). She started collecting stuffed animals instead (I was still on books). Then fashion magazines. No social difficulties, no sensory difficulties, does like routines, though, and is prone to black-and-white thinking. Thinks me and my father are both autistic. Would know more than the layperson, considering uni studies and work experience. She’s not autistic, but shows traits (special interests, black and white thinking, and other stuff I won’t mention because privacy). She doesn’t get me as much as my father, but is more in-tune with me than he is – Dad gets why I do stuff after I do it, my sister knows what I’m feeling usually before I do. She might not get why I’m walking with my eyes shut, for example, but she’s the one who will hand me a hat if it’s bright out before we even step outside.
- My mother: Extremely prone to black-and-white thinking and obsessive thinking. Has a number of mental health issues commonly comorbid with and/or related to autism. If you don’t do things her way, you’re wrong. Difficult to elucidate to what degree she has social difficulties because of her mental illness, but has no sensory issues, executive function issues, or problems with disrupting routines. Not autistic, but maybe BAP-y. She would yell at me for walking with my eyes shut and insist that it’s not that bright, that I’m exaggerating my discomfort.
- My paternal grandmother (deceased): By all accounts that aren’t me and one of my cousins, a very strange and difficult-to-get-on-with woman. Me and my autistic cousin on that side of the family thought she was normal and liked her a lot. Very black-and-white in her thinking, with strong, unusual interests. Growing up, she was the only one in the extended family who liked Star Wars as much as me, and on the rare occasions we got together, we’d spend hours quoting it at each other (in order of the script, according to film release date, and the Great Ewok Adventure and the Christmas Special don’t count), to the befuddlement of everyone else who thought she just hated people. There were two colors she’d wear (grey and blue), and she would only wear stuff made of long-fibre cotton. She moved across the continent to get away from neighbours she didn’t like. Twice. She would never look anyone in the eye. She would look above you instead (I didn’t notice, because I don’t look people in the eye, either, but my sister mentioned it). She could spend days without talking, and was the only one in the extended family with a similarly deep appreciation for books. She loved routines, and would get extremely angry if you disrupted them on her – case in point: she once smacked my then-preschool-aged sister because my sister went to her chair the wrong way around the dinner table (that’s why my sister and I didn’t see her often). I’m almost certain she was autistic. She would say, “It’s too bright out. Let’s wait until it clouds over or gets dark.”
- Paternal great-uncle: Brother to my grandmother, though her family tried to erase his existence. He was institutionalized for, from what I can piece together, sounds like nonverbal autism, in the 1930s. I don’t know anything beyond this, and that he died sometime in the 50s. Not sure what he would do re: brightness. He died long before I was born.
- Paternal cousin: is diagnosed autistic. Stereotypical little professor as a kid. Loves routines, was an extremely talented diver** by 10 (people called him a prodigy), and refused to compete thereafter because competition environment was “too stressful.” Loves computer code. Is a programmer for a living (he jokes he lives up to the stereotype of the autistic computer nerd). People in the extended family lament that he could go to the Olympics “if he wanted to,” but I get it. I know exactly what he’s talking about, and I don’t blame him a bit – high level sports competition is sensory and routine hell. It’s why I didn’t go beyond Nationals in my sport.*** No thanks. He would grab a hat for himself, and, seeing me walking with my eyes shut, would offer to go back and get another.
- Maternal cousin: Is diagnosed autistic, and didn’t talk much until age 5. Oddly doesn’t care much one way or the other about routines (odd in my extended family anyway – pretty much everyone except her and my mother likes routines). Typical interests growing up, but unusual in depth – she didn’t just like boybands as a kid, she knew what her favorite members liked to eat for breakfast. Likes banking. Extroverted by nature, good at faking socialization, but gets exhausted by putting on the typical mask, so she has a solo office where she can do paperwork alone to recharge a bit, and often goes out with friends who know she’s autistic and don’t mind her being her. The best at passing of the autistic people in the family, unless my father turns out to be autistic, in which case she’s the second-best, but she probably pays the biggest toll for her passing. She’d wear her sunglasses on a bright day and wouldn’t notice my discomfort unless I mentioned it. If I did, she’d know a quiet, out-of-the-way store to get a new one in, to which she’d take me without delay.
*wasn’t actually a leaf collection, but was similarly unusual. Changed to protect her privacy.
**sport changed for privacy reasons.
*** sport not identified for privacy reasons, but yes, I went to nationals in a thing a few times. Fun sport, hell environment.