“I think my parent is neurodiverse.”

Dania Jekel, Executive Director
Blog Post

Many adults, both neurotypical and on the spectrum, often come to us to discuss an important issue in their life. After learning about neurodiversity, they come to the realization that one or both of their parents fit the Asperger/autism profile. They may have been seeking greater insight into their childhood by working with a therapist or through searching the internet for answers about family dynamics, or they discover their own child is on the spectrum and recognize aspects of the profile in their parent. The reason these adults come to AANE is to understand their own experience and for information, and sometimes they ask if we can connect them with other adults who were also brought up by parents on the spectrum. Many wonder how they should process this information and consider whether or not to discuss this possibility with the parent who may be completely unaware of neurodiversity, or who may not see any connection between themselves and the Asperger/autism profile.

Why Neurodiverse Parenting May Look Different

Before we look at this discovery process, I think it is helpful to understand why the parenting style of someone on the spectrum may appear different from parents who are neurotypical. While the parent on the spectrum may feel an equal amount of love and care for a child as a neurotypical parent, the way they show this love may be completely different, and there are aspects of parenting that may be inherently challenging for them. A person on the spectrum who is part of a one-on-one relationship with a partner may have developed routines, constructed a life that was predictable, and created an environment that was suitable for their particular neurology. When a child is introduced, no matter how loved, it can be very disruptive to this world. As a result, there may have been a puzzling mix of experiences for the child.

On the one hand, a child may have shared special interests with the parent and enjoyed intellectual or artistic pursuits, felt comfortable in routines, and actually appreciated a parent who is less warm and fuzzy. On the other hand, perhaps a different type of child may have felt the parent seemed inattentive (or over-attentive), inflexible, disconnected, anxious, or had unrealistic expectations. If the parents didn’t have the understanding that they were part of a neurodiverse relationship and had a difficult time resolving the change having children made in their lives, the child may have absorbed their parents’ disharmony as well. For children who experienced this without the understanding of neurodiversity, there may be residual pain from not properly interpreting family dynamics or a lack of physical or emotional availability. New knowledge of the Asperger/autism profile may finally shed light on a lifetime of unresolved feelings. 

Processing Neurodiverse Parenting

If you are going through the experience of realizing one or both of your parents is on the spectrum, the most constructive part of this realization can be your own process. Seeing your relationship with your parent through this new lens can help you understand and reinterpret interactions. The decision to bring this up with a parent is a completely personal choice with many factors to contemplate. If you are thinking about whether or not to share this information with a parent, here are some things to consider:

  • Discuss With Family: Think about broaching the topic with a trusted family member first who could give their opinion. This may be a sibling or the other parent. It is helpful to get a sense if they see the same traits as you.
  • Understand Your Motivations: Next, I think it is critical to examine your motivations for bringing this information to your parent and what you hope to gain. Feelings of anger or resentment even for understandable reasons may influence the interaction, placing everyone concerned on the defensive and cause alienation. If you are guided by a desire to become closer to your parent or repair damage from a history of misunderstandings rather than assigning blame for the past, you will have a better chance the interaction will be positive. Hopefully what you have learned about Asperger/autism profiles will allow you to understand their pain as well, be more compassionate, and relate to them without getting upset.
  • Prepare for a Variety of Responses: If you do decide to bring this information to your parent, it is important to prepare for a wide array of reactions: there could be recognition and understanding, denial and hurt feelings, or any number of responses. Their reaction may also evolve over time as more reflection occurs. Be patient. Also, recognize that even if the parent recognizes their neurodiversity, it will not change who the parent is. 
  • Review of the Past / Focus on the Future: Consider carefully how much to revisit events in your life. While clearing the air over particular aspects of the past could be helpful, it could be far more constructive to look to your relationship going forward and how this new understanding can make each of you accept each other as you are.

No matter what your decision is, you will benefit from your own processing. Hopefully you will come to a greater understanding and reach a place of acceptance and reconciliation.