“Could My Dad have Undiagnosed Autism?”
Maybe there’s always been something a little off with your dad that you haven’t been able to put your finger on. Perhaps he has trouble making friends or has some unusual routines that you’ve never quite understood. Until recent decades, people thought autism only looked like the severe cases seen in movies like “Rain Man.” Today, we know that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can display a variety of mild to severe symptoms. This growing knowledge of ASD has many people wondering if their dad’s unique traits could be signs of undiagnosed autism.
But how can you know if your dad is on the spectrum? And if he’s gone his whole life undiagnosed, should you encourage him to find out?
If you think your dad might have undiagnosed autism, here are some things you should know:
1. There’s a lost generation
Autism wasn’t widely recognized until the 1980’s, so countless kids with autism were misdiagnosed or completely overlooked in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and 70’s. In recent years, many adults have only realized they have ASD when one of their children has been diagnosed. The tragedy of this lost generation is that these individuals did not receive the support growing up that we now know drastically improves the quality of life for children and adults with autism.
2. There’s no “typical” autism
There’s a saying that if you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism. No two people have identical symptoms, and if your dad has autism he will likely exhibit some symptoms and not others. Common symptoms include:
Trouble making friends or being “socially awkward”
Difficulty expressing emotion
Making involuntary sounds like clearing throat or humming
Sticking to strict routines and getting upset when they are disrupted
Having repetitive rituals (sometimes autism is misdiagnosed as OCD)
Underdeveloped motor skills (e.g. - poor penmanship or clumsiness)
Fixating on particular interests such as a sports team or astronomy
Having amazing memories
Making honest observations (even if they are inappropriate!)
Being highly intelligent
Being unable to understand body language
Avoiding eye contact
Disliking loud noise or busy environments
Preferring not to be physically touched
Speaking loudly without realizing it
Invading others’ personal space without meaning to
Preferring the company of kids or animals to people their own age
3. Your dad is not defective
People with autism are not broken; they just don’t respond to visual and verbal cues the same way mainstream society does. Having autism in a neurotypical world is sort of like being dropped off in a foreign country with radically different customs than you’re used to; yes, you can get by, but you’ll have trouble fitting in until you learn how to interact in ways the locals understand. In turn, the more society learns about ASD, the more schools, employers, and families can support the success and well-being of people with autism.
4. The spectrum has its perks
Many people with ASD reject the idea that autism needs to be “cured” but rather that society should embrace the unique gifts that individuals with autism bring to the table. People with ASD tend to be honest, loyal, nonjudgmental, passionate, intelligent, nonmaterialistic, and have a great sense of humor. They also tend to be better at living in the present than their ever-distracted neurotypical neighbors. Many also have outstanding talents that go beyond the average person’s capabilities.
5. Accommodations are everything
People with undiagnosed autism spend their entire lives trying to decode how to speak and act in socially acceptable ways. But when a diagnosis is made, adjustments can be made to make work, religious, and family life much more supportive of how individuals with autism think and interact. With accommodations such as mentors, calm workspaces, clear instructions, extended deadlines, additional breaks, and predictable schedules, people with autism can find success and fulfillment in all aspects of life.
6. A diagnosis can be healing
Today, one in 59 children are diagnosed with autism. It’s impossible to gauge how many kids from previous generations had autism but remained under the radar. As an adult, a diagnosis can help your dad gain clarity on why certain things in life have been difficult for him. Understanding ASD can boost his self-confidence and empower him to embrace his unique gifts and traits. What’s more, there are communities of adults with ASD who he can connect with to build relationships and gain the support he never had growing up.
7. Breaking the news brings risks
So you’ve read the blog and are convinced your dad has autism: now the million dollar question becomes whether or not you should tell him. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. While a diagnosis could be liberating, he may not be receptive to hearing your hunch. He’s spent his entire life learning how to cope with his differences, and finding out that he’s had a lifelong diagnosis may feel painful and confusing. A mental health specialist can help you determine whether the pros of understanding his symptoms and potentially seeking support could outweigh the risk of hurting his feelings or creating tension in your relationship.
8. You deserve support
As you consider your dad’s emotional needs, make sure you don’t neglect your own. You may also be carrying pain and confusion from growing up with a parent on the spectrum. Perhaps you’ve always felt emotionally disconnected from your dad or maybe you’ve felt a parent-child role reversal as you’ve tried to help him cope with his symptoms. A mental health specialist who understands the impact of having a parent on the autism spectrum can help you work through these challenges.
Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. specializes in supporting men and teenage boys through life’s transitions. If you are a man who is concerned that your dad may have undiagnosed autism, Dr. Sample can provide you with tools to support both yourself and your father.
Dr. Daniella A. Davis, Psy.D., is an expert in dealing with the unique challenges that women face throughout each stage of life. If you are a woman concerned that your father or husband may have undiagnosed autism, Dr. Davis can support you in determining the next steps to support your loved one.
Cynthia R. Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. If you are concerned with how a family member’s undiagnosed autism is impacting your family, Cynthia can help.
Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. Dr. Shinn can provide diagnostic testing and recommend support for children or adults with symptoms of undiagnosed autism.
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Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.
Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams, graduate and professional licensing exams such as MCAT, LSAT, GRE, CBEST, NCLEX, GMAT, CA Cosmetology Exam, CA Contractors State Licensing Exam, and CA Bar Exam).
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Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Data & Statistics. Retrieved online: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Signs & Symptoms. Retrieved online: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
Lai MC, Baron-Cohen S (2015). Identifying the lost generation of adults with autism spectrum conditions. Lancet Psychiatry. 2(11):1013-27. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00277-1.
Shinn. M.M. (2018). Graduate Student’s Guide to Test Accommodations: The LSAT, MCAT, GRE, NCLEX, CBEST, GMAT, Cosmetology Exam, Contractors Exam, & Bar Exam. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/graduate-students-guide-to-test-accommodations
Jordan, M. (2018). Workplace Accommodations: Tips and Resources. Autism.com Retrieved online: https://www.autism.com/adults_accommodations2
Ranaghan, S. (2018). My story being diagnosed as an adult on the autism spectrum. Autism Speaks. Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/life-spectrum/my-story-being-diagnosed-autism-adult
How to Cite This Blog Article:
Shinn. M.M. (2019). Could My Dad Have Undiagnosed Autism? Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.variationspsychology.com/test-blog/could-my-dad-have-undiagnosed-autism