Part 90: The Child is Father of the Man

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you are all well. As regular readers know, I’ve not been well, recently. While the issues with depression and anxiety continue, I am constantly struggling with physical health niggles, too. One day this week, one of those physical niggles flared up quite badly, to the extent that I was getting a bit panicky about it. I did the sensible thing, and contacted my GP. I’m now awaiting test results. I don’t think it’s anything life-threatening or overly serious, but it’s painful and distressing. When I’m feeling particularly low, I know I can rely on my son for support. He’s great. He and his girlfriend took me to see the premiere of the new Doctor Strange movie. It was really nice of them. However, my health issues are such that it took me several hours of preparation to be able to get myself in a state to actually go. Even then, I had to opt out of the pre-movie meal, and just meet them at the cinema. Driving into the city centre to meet them, I hit some bad traffic, and then struggled to find a parking space, which meant I finally walked into the cinema as the trailers were starting, leaving me feeling pretty stressed out.

I’ve mentioned many times in this blog the great relationship I have with my son. We get on so incredibly well, trust each other completely, and have an amazing bond. It’s probably no surprise to anyone, then, to learn that he too is autistic, having received an “official” diagnosis just recently. I want to say a few things about relationships between parents and their offspring in this week’s blog, but I’ll come back to that shortly. First, I want to talk about that survey…

If you’re autistic and active online in the UK, you probably know which survey I mean. I saw it on a Facebook post from The National Autistic Society (NAS), asking autistic people to share three things they would change to make the world work better for autistic people. The survey is done via an online form you can find by clicking here. Bizarrely (in my opinion at least), the default request for responses to the survey is to upload a video or audio clip. That option made me so uncomfortable that I almost didn’t respond to the survey at all. But thankfully, there is an option to upload a text response, which is what I did.

I should point out here that I have mixed feelings about the NAS. They do some good work, but there’s no getting past their continued involvement with the Dark Lord of autism “research”, Simon Baron-Cohen. The NAS must know about the feelings of the autistic community regarding Baron-Cohen, yet he remains one of their vice-presidents. It’s difficult to see how the NAS can ever really fully support social equality for autistic people while they subscribe to Baron-Cohen as an authority on autism, and this is the reason why the NAS is trusted more by neurotypical people related to autistic people than it is by most actually autistic people. However, the profile and influence of the NAS are such that I felt I had to get my voice heard in this survey. Asking someone what three things they would change, with no restrictions, is a weird thing. It’s almost like asking what you would do with three wishes. My reply to the survey will not be everyone’s cup of tea, I get that. But I submitted an honest answer, saying what I genuinely feel as a response to the prompt, “Three things I would change to make the world work better for autistic people are…” Here is what I submitted:

The three points I made will come as no shock to anyone who follows this blog regularly, of course. It’s difficult to get these issues across effectively in the medium of a survey but hopefully, the gist of it gets through. With that out of the way, let me talk briefly about parenting…

“The Child is father of the Man” is one of William Wordsworth’s most famous lines, quoted innumerable times, and it has passed into the public consciousness to such an extent that it is often referenced by people who have no idea where it originated from. It’s widely thought that Wordsworth intended the line in a very simple, uplifting way; that a child who experiences simple pleasures should hold onto that feeling in adulthood. Maybe that’s what he meant; maybe not, but it’s a fool’s game to try to guess at authorial intent when analysing literature. I feel pretty confident that Bill Wordsworth would have understood the concept of reader-response theory, even if the term hadn’t been coined in his lifetime. In short, the meaning of any text is in the eye of the beholder. As with most great poetry, especially those of the “big six” Romantics, the words that appear simple at first glance are often overloaded with subtler potentials for meaning. That doesn’t happen by accident; it’s what great writers do. Analysis of the texts often results in something like a match being taken to a powder keg, with an explosion of insight. The Child is father to the Man is one of the most weighty lines of poetry ever written. But this isn’t a literature blog, so I’ll try to pull out of fanboy mode, and move on a bit.

The relationship between parent and offspring is complex. It’s not a particularly original take to say that babies are vulnerable and need a lot of care, and many elderly people become vulnerable and need a lot of care, often resulting in a role reversal for both parent and offspring. When we bring a child into the world, it’s an incredible responsibility, not only because of the care that child will require, but also because of the potential effect that child will have on the world and the people they encounter as they grow and develop. Most parents would, I think, understand this responsibility, even the ones who need a prompt to think about it. Children are, of course, potential parents themselves, and there is a cyclical element to this. Poor parenting can have lasting effects through many generations. I’m not trying to portray myself as an expert on parenting; the observations I’m making are very basic and straightforward. I’m a parent, I’ve been a step-parent, and I’ve been a single parent, so I do have a certain amount of experience to draw on – not all of it pleasant. I also know many other people who are also parents, and I’m old enough to have seen a lot of kids grow up, and see how their relationships with their parents change over time. One thing that repeatedly flummoxes is how relationships break down between parents and offspring. Sometimes, I see parents behaving in ways that seem to be so obviously storing up problems for the future, and then they wonder why they become alienated from their kids. Sometimes, I see sweet kids grow into not-so-sweet adults, and wonder how they got there… and then I remind myself of some of the ways I behaved as a young adult, and try not to judge. There is often a complex dynamic between parents and children, and when the offspring move into adulthood, it’s fascinating to see various effects come into play as personalities are formed. None of us are really just ourselves; our personalities are not formed in a vacuum; we are the result of diverse influences.

At some point, we are considered adult enough to be able to analyse our own behaviour, and be responsible for our own actions, but there will always be parts of us that are driven by the childhood influences of our parents and other adults. Some of that influence will be positive; some negative; and it gets incredibly complex for people who have multiple parents due to bereavements, divorces, remarriages, etc. In the many difficulties and challenges we all face in life, I think sometimes, parents lose track of their responsibilities to the overall, long-term development of their kids. The good intent might be there, but behaviours sometimes go off course. I remember well from my childhood, some friends who were horribly abused by parents who were considered upstanding members of the community and “good parents”. Sometimes, it goes the other way; really good, focused parents who cannot offset malign influences from elsewhere, resulting in kids who go completely off the rails.

I became a father at a very young age. The prospect of becoming a parent at that age was daunting and scary. My girlfriend didn’t want to consider abortion, and I was happy about that; abortion didn’t feel right for us, although I absolutely support the right to choose, and in no way would criticise anyone choosing abortion. I did briefly have an anti-abortion position as a teenager, mainly thanks to a dodgy religious group I got snared into, but that is long in the past. Anyway, like I said, I found the prospect of becoming a father daunting… but also appealing. My father had been hopeless. I now strongly suspect he was undiagnosed autistic, and this lack of understanding of what he was, and his difficulties in functioning in the neurotypical world, led to him becoming an alcoholic, and being unable to hold down jobs, or be an effective family man. For myself, becoming a dad as a teenager, this meant I had no real role model for fatherhood. What I did have was something to react against; I was determined to be a better parent than my own father. That ended up being easier said than done, but I did my best. I was painfully aware I was lacking in certain skills and experience, but I’ve always been a conceptual rather than detail thinker, at heart. I worked on the principle that my love and devotion to my son would go a long way to mitigating any parenting mistakes I might make.

Recently, I spoke to my now very grown-up son about the mistakes I made as a young father, and my regrets. My son doesn’t pull his punches, and is very honest and forthright, but he wouldn’t have any of this about my regrets. His position is that he always felt loved by both his parents, safe in our care, and that we understood him. This means a lot to me. Traditionally, I always put down my ability to empathise with my son throughout his childhood to me being such a young parent. These days, I wonder how much of it was down to us both being autistic. A lot, I guess, but not all of it. I know my son has benefitted in life because both his mother and I made a determined, consistent effort to listen to him, understand him, and empathise with him, as he grew and developed. Yes, we made mistakes in some areas, of course we did, we were barely more than kids ourselves. But the foundations we put in place were firm. Most if not all parents would claim they do the same, of course, but I look at the relationships between some parents and kids, and see that the eating of that pudding offers up very different proof. It pains me and baffles me to see parents get the basic requirement of really trying to understand their kids so drastically wrong. If you listen to the myths about autism, you hear that we autistic people are supposed to have difficulties empathising – which is just not true – but I see huge deficits in empathy between some neurotypical parents and their kids. Not always, obviously, but it is commonplace. And the problem gets worse between neurotypical parents and autistic offspring. If so many parents find it difficult to empathise with their children, how much more problematic can it be for a neurotypical parent of an autistic child, in the context of the double empathy problem?

So, on the subject of neurotypical parents of autistic kids, once again TV personality Paddy McGuinness has been in the media talking about how difficult it is being a parent of autistic children. I can’t help wondering if Paddy would have actually found it any easier being a parent of a neurotypical child because, you know, being a parent is hard work. I talked at length a while ago about Paddy McGuinness in a previous blog, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much, here. But suffice it to say, I have no doubt that Paddy is genuinely devoted to his kids, he clearly loves them to bits, and what he says comes from a good place. But good intentions only go so far, and sometimes in the wrong direction. Paddy and his wife Christine, who was recently diagnosed as autistic herself, are firmly in the clutches of Simon Baron-Cohen. In fact, Baron-Cohen diagnosed Christine, who has gone on to do work for… wait for it… the National Autistic Society. It’s difficult to see how Paddy McGuinness can ever move away from seeing that his autistic kids are in some way broken and can’t be repaired if he continues to be under the malign influence of Baron-Cohen. Have a look at this quote from McGuinness:

McGuinness is doing irreparable damage to the public perception of autism, simply because he is so famous, and people will read what he is saying, and internalise it, assume autistic kids are broken (not true) and unable to “get better as the years go on” (they don’t need to – they’re not broken). Maybe McGuinness would have a different thought process on this – and be less depressed – if he could empathise with his kids more, rather than sympathising with their supposedly deficient status as human beings, and indeed feeling sorry for himself. Sometimes, even the most loving parents get it wrong, and I believe this is often because they do not genuinely empathise with their kids. Sometimes love and intentions and skills and experience are not in doubt, but there is some breakdown in the empathy response, and that’s where the problem lies. It’s a danger for any parent-child relationship, even more so for a neurotypical parent of an autistic child, and further still if that neurotypical parent is having his thoughts and opinions about autism directed by someone who has a vested financial and professional interest in ensuring society sees autism as a disorder – Simon Baron-Cohen.

One thing you have to consider as a parent, is that your kids will grow up, become adults, and have an opinion on how you parented them. By trying to empathise with your kids, you can put yourself in their shoes, and try to see yourself through their eyes. It’s a hell of an exercise to try, and I imagine would be quite shocking for many. It can be helpful sometimes as a parent to just stop doing what you’ve always done because you think it’s right, and instead think about the way your child sees it all. Whether you can actually do that, or even think it is a worthwhile exercise, will speak volumes about you as a parent, and will set the tone for your future relationship with your offspring.

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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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