Autism’s Mirror

There was nothing but the roaring sound of rubber spinning on asphalt at a hundred and ten kilometres per hour.  In Perth everyone lives as far away from everyone as they possibly can.  So it was another forty minute drive across town.  Another forty minutes of just sitting there looking out the window at the barren grey-brown suburban Perth scrub.  Another forty of minutes of just sitting there … doing nothing.

“You’re gibbering again,” my Dad said.  “Stop it.”

I had been bouncing my knees again unconsciously – a rapid flick of the ankle muscles that for some reason had always soothed and calmed me.

Gibber – ordinarily meaning to prattle unintelligibly – was my father’s word for my fidgeting.  The word comes from the latin “gibber” – meaning:  “humpbacked” (which of course throws absolutely no light on my father’s usage).  Besides, he had his own etymology for the word.

Gibber” – sounds like “gibbon”, which was the word he used to describe me when I was bouncing around hyperactively.  To gibber, then, is to perform monkey-like actions that are annoying and distracting.

“Your behaviour this morning was embarrassing,” my father said.

“What?  Why?” I asked.

We had been visiting my grandparents.   To pass the time together we played a board game.  I had gotten a little carried away.  When my grandmother and sister decided to launch a mass invasion of my territories in North America, I believe I called them both:  “fuckers” – all in good fun, of course.   It had been a splendid time.

“You were unbelievably rude and bulshy,” he said.

“I was not!”

“You were. I’ve never been so embarrassed.”  He turned around to my sister in the back seat and asked her for confirmation.  She concurred and added that I had ruined the morning.

“That’s not fair – I wasn’t doing anything that any of you don’t do.”

But they were right and I was wrong.  I was like a poorly socialised cat that couldn’t tell as the claws pierced the skin.

I got no further response.  The tension in the car bled into the static, rubber-asphalt noise.  I was gibbering again.   My father’s hand flew off the steering wheel and held my knee with such force that it hurt.

“Alright – sorry!”  I shouted, and wrestled his hand off my knee.

I spent the final twenty minutes of the car ride concentrating as hard as I could on my legs.  It was torture.

When we arrived home my dad retreated to his office to work – as he always did on the weekends … endlessly… relentlessly… always.  That was fine by me.  The less the two of us interacted the better.

* * *

Twenty years later and I’m telling this story to my psychiatrist.  I got a referral from my GP having come to believe that I had attention deficit disorder.  She took great interest in my father – the way he worked all the time – his total lack of friends.  I told her more stories.

* * *

One time some friends had come round after to school to hang out.  I told them that I couldn’t go out because my dad expected me to have done my cleaning chores before he got home.  So they helped me clean.   They were good friends.

Dad drove up in the driveway just as we were finishing.  We stood in anxious silence as he made his inspection (as he always did first thing upon arriving home).

He seemed unusually satisfied – the efforts of four teenagers were superior to one.  But there were still some burn spots on the stove – a bit of dust here and there on the furniture – a few other bits and pieces that weren’t satisfactory.

Most heinous, however, was the location of the broom – which one of my friends had placed beside the fridge in the kitchen.  My father stared at it gravely for a long time before moving it to the laundry beside the washing machine.

“The broom lives here,” he said.

My friends exchanged glances with one another.

Every day for a month at school my friends made fun of this moment:

“Hey Dan!  Hey Dan!  The broom lives here.”

The laughter was endless.

* * *

“It’s quite common to find ADHD and Aspergers present in the same family,” my psychiatrist told me.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” she added.  “There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that they are both disorders that sit on the same spectrum.  Both the brains of ADHD and Aspergers people have difficulty processing incoming stimuli.  In a sense, the brain can’t handle it and shuts down.  ADHD people compensate for this by drowning out the overwhelming stimuli with their own behaviour, hence their hyperactivity.  ADD people just block out the stimuli and stop paying attention.  People with high functioning autism deal with it by trying to impose order on the world around them – to make it predictable, routine and safe.”

I was stunned by the revelation.  All the tattered and senseless threads of my existence – and of my relationship with my father – were suddenly being tied together in a perfect and intelligible narrative.

“This explains a lot,” I said.

My psychiatrist smiled sympathetically.  “So every time your father saw your messy room …”

“A firecracker exploded in his head,” I said.

She laughed.  “That’s a good way of putting it.  People with ADD and ADHD have incredible powers of lateral thinking – they live outside the box.”

“And my dad lives entirely inside the box,” I added.  “My god – no wonder I pissed him off so much.”

What a cruel irony, I thought.

We were so much alike – my father and I.  It should have been us against the world.  There should have been a bond borne not just of blood – but of mutual pain and mutual confusion.  Instead we were trapped on the opposite sides of a mirror.  Looking at my father was like looking at myself, but with the picture reversed.

* * *

I have gone through periods where I succumb to the doubts that many have concerning autism spectrum disorders.  Maybe I’m just weak – I think.  Maybe my dad is just anal.  Maybe we just need to work harder at getting along.

Now – the absolute truth of the matter has no importance to me.  When my psychiatrist confirmed my suspicion about my ADD, and when she suggested her diagnosis of my father, the enormous weight of thirty years of resentment and confusion was lifted from my heart – in an instant.  Do I resent my father now?   Not at all.  Do I forgive myself for all the wrongs I’ve done to him in the past?  Completely.

I think we understand each other better now than we ever have.  We still stand on opposite sides of the mirror.  But now it’s like we can reach out to its surface and make it ripple like water – not fracture like glass.

If the diagnosis is wrong (as many close to me have argued), then I don’t care.  The fiction is the most convenient of my life.

What a beautiful lie it would turn out to be.

Daniel Haggard blogs at Reviews in Depth and at All Things Daniel Haggard.

Autism’s Mirror was written expressly to appear here at Shift Journal.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 06/28/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Hi Dan — good to see you here again. :)

    Glad your psychiatrist has been so helpful. That’s what their primary role ought to be, helping people to put life experiences and relationships into perspective. While I wouldn’t describe myself as anti-medication, I’d say that there is no pill that can take the place of good old-fashioned understanding and forgiveness.

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